By Christopher Zoukis
As summer temperatures rise beyond uncomfortable to approach dangerous, state prisons and local jails increasingly face court challenges which claim failure to protect inmates against temperature extremes amounts to “cruel and unusual” punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
In Texas, state prisons are facing numerous lawsuits, including a large federal class-action case, filed in 2014 for over 1,400 inmates – primarily disabled older inmates at the Wallace Pack Unit near Houston. Civil rights lawyers bringing the case also allege drinking water has since 2006 contained unsafe levels of arsenic, and claim overheating has killed at least 20 state inmates since 1998.
After earlier finding the state had been “deliberately indifferent” to health risks the “extreme heat” posed for the inmates and ordering increased monitoring, the presiding judge this June issued a preliminary injunction ordering the state to fix the water. Texas corrections officials have appealed the ruling; they estimate air conditioning would cost over $22 million to install at the Wallace Pack Unit, plus about $478,000 in annual operating costs, arguing for simpler, cheaper steps to lower cellblock temperatures.
Ironically, although state rules prescribe air temperature standards (between 65° F and 85° F) for local jails, state prisons are not subject to those limits. Currently, of the 109 Texas corrections facilities, air conditioning is available only for 19 medical units and about a dozen lockups for special-needs inmates.
Inmate litigation on extreme heat levels has also focused on the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the nation’s largest maximum security prison. In June 2013, a non-profit legal group representing three Death Row inmates went to federal court to sue the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, its top executive, and the wardens for both Angola and its Death Row.
The lawsuit claimed failure by the agency and officials to provide inmates adequate relief from extreme heat creates a substantial risk of serious harm to their safety and health, and so violates their constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, as well as due-process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Because the plaintiff inmates have hypertension and other ailments, including hepatitis, depression or diabetes, often aggravated by extreme heat, the lawsuit also cited the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires public facilities to make reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities, and the Rehabilitation Act, which imposes similar requirements on facilities built with federal funding assistance.
The lawsuit drew on government records for the “heat index,” which combines temperature and humidity, noting that figure for the Angola Death Row exceeded 126 degrees for more than 80 days during the previous summer. It asked the court to rule to order the state agency and Angola officials to ensure the heat index in all Death Row cells doesn’t exceed 88° F.
Six months after the lawsuit was filed, the judge ordered air conditioning for Angola’s Death Row; the state appealed the decision, and the parties continue arguing about specific relief measures. Besides the high cost of retrofitting facilities with air conditioning, plus operating costs, another complicating factor is the potential political fallout against officials who might be seen as too lenient or lavish in spending on inmates convicted of serious crimes.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com