Tuesday, September 30, 2014

"Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Announces Hearing on Texas Extreme Prison Heat"

The title of this post comes from this press release from the University of Texas School of Law's Human Rights Clinic announcing the October 27, 2014 hearing before the Inter-American Comission on Human Rights in Washington D.C. on the extreme heat inside Texas prisons.

Earlier this year, the Texas Civil Rights Project filed a lawsuit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (DCJ) on behalf of prisoners in Texas claiming that temperatures inside the state's prisons violate the prisoners' Eighth Amendment rights. CNN's Emma Lacy-Bordeaux reported at the time:

The lawsuit, broadly concerned about the lack of air conditioning across state facilities, centers on a facility in Navasota, Texas, known as the Wallace Pack Unit. Located about 70 miles northwest of Houston, the facility houses about 1,400 men. As of January, the compliant said, 114 men over the age of 70 were housed there. They have no air conditioning, and the windows which do open provide little relief, the suit claims, leading to temperatures inside that often exceed those outside.




The lawsuit alleges some 20 deaths since 1998 and details names, ages and internal body temperatures of the victims, including cases where the body temperature recorded was well over 100 degrees. One man, 45-year-old Rodney Adams, died one day after his arrival. His internal temperature registered 109.9.

Indeed, temperatures in Texas prisons often exceeded 100 degrees, a condition that affects prison staff as well as inmates. Exposure to such extreme temperatures can be particularly dangerous for elderly imates and those with specific health conditions. As NPR's Alisa Roth stated:

[T]he number of inmates prone to this sensitivity has been growing; the elderly prison population has been increasing for years, and people with mental illness make up a disproportionate percentage of inmates in the U.S.

And at least 14 prisoners reportedly have died because of heat related illnesses since 2007.

The DCJ's efforts to alleviate the effects of the heat have been few. It has added a few large fans to several of its prisons, but it doesn't appear to have otherwise substantively addressed the issue. The New York Times's Manny Fernandez reported:

A Texas law requires county jails to maintain temperature levels between 65 and 85 degrees, but the law does not apply to state prisons. The American Correctional Association recommends that temperature and humidity be mechanically raised or lowered to acceptable levels. 




A prison agency spokesman, Jason Clark, said that many prison units were built before air-conditioning was commonly installed, and that many others built later in the 1980s and 1990s did not include air-conditioning because of the additional construction, maintenance and utility costs. Retrofitting prisons with air-conditioning would be extremely expensive, he said.


As a result, the agency takes a number of steps to assist inmates, Mr. Clark said, and he disputed the criticisms of inmates and their lawyers about inadequate fans, water and ventilation. On hot summer days, he said, prison officials restrict outside activity, provide frequent water breaks, allow additional showers, permit inmates to wear shorts and increase airflow by using blowers normally used to move warm air in the winter.

(h/t Grits for Breakfast)


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