Sunday, May 25, 2014

Hot in Louisiana: Federal suit may set precedent for Texas

A federal judge has ruled in favor of plaintiffs from death row in Louisiana, calling excessive heat there "cruel and unusual" punishment and appointing a "special master" to supervise compliance with his court order, which includes installation of air conditioning as well as "providing chests filled with ice and allowing inmates once-daily cold showers." I'm sure Texas prison officials are closely watching our neighbor's reaction and wondering whether the hottest Texas prisons may be next.

Louisiana, like Texas, lies in the the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. So if the Fifth Circuit greenlights a heat mitigation order there, it could signal which way Texas' pivotal litigation may go. The state of Louisiana has already announced it would appeal: “Given the significant issues involved in this litigation which have far-reaching effects on many correctional institutions in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, the Department intends to seek a thorough review of the trial court’s decision with the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.” Count on the state of Texas at some point to submit amici, which should be interesting to read.

Two years ago, the Fifth Circuit ruled that Texas prisoners could sue over excessive heat. This Louisiana case may tell us the extent to which the court is willing to endorse more coercive remedies to limit heat in prisons under its jurisdiction. Bottom line: If this judgment and precedent is allowed to stand, it's not difficult to chart a path on which Texas could find itself facing federal court orders to mitigate heat in many prison units, not just death row.

As a practical matter, a federal court order is the only way politically Texas prisons could ever be forced to install air conditioning, even in the hottest units, or pay for more labor-intensive heat mitigation measures that cost the state money. If a federal court were to issue such an order, there would be much bipartisan weeping and gnashing of teeth among the political classes about the relative comfort of prisoners vs. the poor, soldiers in Afghanistan, etc., and a great deal of post hoc grumbling about the misplaced priorities of liberalism and the federal government. But the state really would have no choice, in the end, but to pony up and comply.

Time will tell. I've been surprised at the Fifth Circuit's reaction in recent years to heat litigation. They have a reputation as generally unfriendly both to prisoners and civil rights litigation. So if they allow district judges in Louisiana to order heat mitigation at the state level, Texas prison officials and the legislature had better start reaching for their pocketbooks. There's a good chance the hottest Texas prisons won't be far behind.

See related Grits posts:


Lee said...

The state government (as much as they would like to) does not control the weather. The incarcerated are subject to the same adverse weather conditions as everyone else in the geographic area. Interestingly enough the free people can't file suit about the heat in their homes or broken AC.

rodsmith said...

that's true. BUT they can fix the sucker or move to a cooler location if they can't take the heat.

sorry the state took control of them. They are legally state property for the duration of their sentence. Sorry at that point the state took over the duty to keep them alive and healthy.

If they don't want to job. stop locking them up

Anonymous said...

The solution is to charge the counties where they were convicted, a charge for room and board to offset the costs of air-conditioning prisons.

Anonymous said...

3:26 - free people can open a window, go sit under a shade tree, etc. The way the prisons are designed, they become ovens in the summer, significantly hotter than someone's home would be. The ventilation is poor and the buildings collect and trap heat. If someone had thought to design the buildings better, we probably wouldn't be having this discussion. It will probably be cheaper to install ac than to tear the prisons down and rebuild then.

Anonymous said...

Plane State Jail and the Henley Unit has all the windows bolted shut. That is nothing more than an death trap.