The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has recognized time and again that extreme heat in prisons can constitute a violation of inmates’ Eighth Amendment rights. In a 2012 case, a 63 year old Texas prisoner presented with a preexisting blood pressure condition, and was taking medication that would affect his body’s ability to regulate temperature. The court decided that a reasonable jury could conclude that a failure to provide air conditioning, among other things, to an individual with these conditions was a violation of the prisoner’s constitutional rights. Most recently, the Middle District of Louisiana issued a decision in 2013 condemning the extreme heat conditions in a Louisiana prison facility similar to those conditions present in TDCJ facilities as a violation of the Constitution. There is therefore clear and recent precedent for denouncing the hot conditions in TDCJ facilities as violating the guarantees and rights of inmates under the Eighth Amendment.On page ten of the report there's a TDCJ temperature log from the Hutchins unit indicating that temperatures reached 114 degrees Fahrenheit and the "heat index" at mid-day reached as high as 149-150 degrees. According to the report, "almost half of TDCJ facilities are built with outer walls that are either partially or fully constructed from metal. Temperatures in these metal-constructed facilities are consistently higher than ambient temperatures or temperatures in concrete facilities. Inmates housed in these facilities have no way of escaping the heat, and are placed at risk of suffering heatstroke as a result."
The report recommends implementing standards similar to those promulgated by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards for county jails, where Sheriffs are required to keep jails below 85 degrees Fahrenheit, or nearly 30 degrees lower than the highest temperature documented at the Hutchins unit in the TDCJ log mentioned above. Those interested should read the whole report.
After the federal court ruling in a Louisiana case last year and the 5th Circuit's ruling that Texas can be sued on the topic, Grits expects TDCJ to ultimately lose the pending heat litigation and for the Legislature to eventually find itself forced to implement significant mitigation measures to reduce heat exposure of inmates and guards. It won't be popular but if the 5th Circuit rules like they did in Louisiana, they won't have a choice.
MORE: From the Houston Chronicle, the Austin Statesman and the Texas Tribune, as well as a column by HouChron columnist Lisa Falkenberg. AND MORE: From the Austin Chronicle, which points out TDCJ's ironic advice to employees on keeping pets safe in the heat while they're at work, noting that "The same level of care is not considered for Texas inmates."