Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Texas's prisoner barbecue just one of many routine Eighth Amendment violations taking place behind prison walls
Yesterday I noted several prisoners in Texas allege that extreme temperatures inside the state's prisons violate their Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Because of their confinement, the prisoners can't readily alleviate the symptoms of long term exposure to the heat without help -- they have limited access to water, few fans, and usually can't open the windows in their cells. The temperatures are especially threatening to the aging prison population, and inmates taking certain medications are also vulnerable. Several of the state's prisoners have died, and now a hearing by an arm of the Organization of American States is scheduled to review these prisons' conditions.
In an op-ed in today's Los Angeles Times, renowned attorney Martin Garbus argues that the Eighth Amendment is routinely violated in prisons throughout the country. That is, Texas is not alone. Garbus writes:
As a litigator and constitutional lawyer, I have heard appalling stories from the nation's prisons and jails. One prisoner described to me how he was handcuffed to the bottom of his bunk in his underwear day after day for months. Another described how his cell was located directly beneath broken toilet pipes, which meant the cell smelled horribly of urine and excrement. I've heard how cells are unbearably hot or cold and how four prisoners are confined to spaces intended for two, with only one set of bunk beds. I've heard about showers that produce only scalding or icy water and about how, when cell toilets overflow, staff are in no hurry to fix them or to clean up.
The health risks in prisons are also unacceptable. MRSA, a bacterial infection whose strains are often resistant to antibiotics, now runs through maximum security prisons. I contracted it myself after visiting such a prison in June and was hospitalized for three days. Sexual assaults and sexual activity are well known to occur in prisons, but prisoners rarely have access to protection, such as condoms, that can help prevent sexually transmitted diseases.
And then there is solitary confinement. It is hard to tell exactly how many prisoners are in solitary each year in the United States. Today, 44 states allow it, but many states do not report how many inmates are held in solitary. A 2005 report from the Vera Institute of Justice estimated the number at 81,622.