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A group of inmates in Texas is making the case that being inside a prison without air conditioning during oppressive summer temperatures constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. They say extreme heat is killing older and infirm convicts, and they're asking the courts for relief. NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Amid the flat pasturelands of Grimes County, Texas, sits the Pack Unit state prison. You can see the low metal buildings surrounded by tall fences baking in the East Texas sun. Measurements by the National Weather Service show that since the beginning of this summer, the peak daily heat index has averaged 104 degrees. That's outside where you might catch a breeze. Inside, the inmates say the poorly-ventilated steel and concrete cell blocks are like ovens.
KEITH COLE: A lot of times we have to - it gets so hot in our dorms that we have to strip down to our boxers, and we'll just lay on the floor because it's a little bit cooler on the floor than it is trying to sit up in our bunks. We try to stay in front of our fans, but in reality there's really not too much that we can really do in our living areas to alleviate, you know, the heat.
BURNETT: Keith Cole is 62 years old, serving life for murder. He's 1 of 6 inmates here in the Pack Unit suing the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Sitting behind a wire screen in the visitors' room, Cole explains that he has heart disease, diabetes and hypertension.
COLE: My age, with the medical conditions that I have, the medications that I'm on, extreme heat can kill me. So it's not a comfort issue with me. That has nothing to do with it. This is a serious medical issue.
BURNETT: Since 1999, autopsies reveal that 20 inmates have died from heat stroke or hyperthermia in the Texas prison system, which is the nation's largest - this according to plaintiff's lawyers. Ten of the victims died in the brutal summer of 2011. It's likely more heat-related deaths occur in prison, but inmates say the cause of death is often listed as heart attack.
The lawsuit is slowly making its way through the federal courts. At present, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans is deciding whether to certify all the inmates in the Pack Unit as vulnerable to extreme heat. Lawyers point out that Texas county jails and federal prisons are cooled, so why not the state prisons? Jeff Edwards is lead counsel.
JEFF EDWARDS: And all of the people that tend to die are the sickest and the most fragile among the inmates. What makes what's going on reprehensible is that the department knows this. We're asking the court to force the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to reduce the temperatures to a safe and livable amount.
BURNETT: The conservative 5th Circuit is listening. Last year it ruled on a similar heat lawsuit filed by death-row inmates in Louisiana. While the court did not go so far as to order air conditioning in Louisiana prisons, it did agree with the underlying issue. Quote, "housing these prisoners in very hot cells without sufficient access to heat-relief measures violates the Eighth Amendment."
In Texas, the question is, what kind of remedy? Prison officials have balked at installing air conditioning equipment in the 79 prisons that don't currently have it. They say the Pack Unit alone would cost $22 million to retrofit. Short of that, prison spokesman Jason Clark says officials recognize summer heat is extremely dangerous, and they've taken steps to cool off the inmates and guards.
JASON CLARK: Such as providing water and ice to staff and offenders in work and housing areas. We restrict offender activity during the hottest parts of the day, and we train staff to identify those that may have heat-related illness and refer them to medical staff for treatment.
BURNETT: Clark points out that 30 Texas prisons are air conditioned. Moreover, he says all of the state's medical, psychiatric and geriatric units, as well as solitary confinement, have chilled air. Texas prisons are by no means unique. Across the sweltering South, only Arkansas air conditions its penitentiaries.
JIM WILLETT: I don't think they deserve air conditioning.
BURNETT: Jim Willett worked for 30 years in the Texas prison system, including eight years as a warden.
WILLETT: I don't think that it's too hot. I have worked in those cellblocks for many years, for over a decade. When I was growing up, I lived for 20 years without air conditioning. I went to public schools that didn't have air conditioning. I see absolutely no reason why we should air condition the prisons in Texas.
BURNETT: There's an old saying that prison guards do time, too. But they're not allowed to strip down to their boxers and stand in front of a fan. They wear long-sleeved shirts and heavy vests to protect them from stabbings. Anthony Williams is a correctional officer Sergeant.
ANTHONY WILLIAMS: It's hot. It's humid. The walls hold heat. It gets pretty bad. Like, if it was a hundred degrees outside, it's about 115, 120 on the inside. And offenders may get more violent.
BURNETT: This issue is not going away. A study published last year by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School points out that heat waves are becoming more severe. The inmate population is getting older, and most of the nation's 1,700 state prisons are wholly unprepared. Expect more cruel and unusual punishment lawsuits focused on hot prisons. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.
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