Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Complaint filed against TDCJ over deadly heat in prisons

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For inmates and staff in Texas prisons, the approach of the summer heat often becomes a matter of life and death.

Several advocacy groups have joined Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede, whose 1996 murder case inspired the 2011 film “Bernie,” in asking the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to provide adequate air conditioning in its state prisons that reach scorching temperatures during the summer months.

Four organizations – Lioness Justice Impacted Women’s Alliance, Texas Prisons Community Advocates, Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, and Texas C.U.R.E – filed an amended complaint against TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier on Monday, April 22, claiming that heat conditions within Texas prisons are a cruel and unusual punishment.

“Texas prisoners are being cooked to death,” the complaint reads. “Last summer alone, many people died and hundreds more suffered serious heat-related illnesses because of the sweltering temperatures in Texas’s prisons.”

The complaint asks the U.S. District Court in Austin to declare TDCJ’s current heat-mitigation policy unconstitutional and require the prisons to maintain a temperature between 65- and 85-degrees Fahrenheit inside its housing and occupied areas. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards already requires state jails to keep temperatures at 85 degrees Fahrenheit and below, and the plaintiffs are asking Texas prisons to do the same.

The complaint expands the lawsuit Tiede filed against TDCJ in September 2023 over lack of air conditioning in his Huntsville prison cell, which reached temperatures of 100 to 112 degrees Fahrenheit. Teide, who is 65 years old and has been diagnosed with diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and COPD, suffered from a potential heat-related stroke last summer that left him with vision issues and partial facial paralysis. While Tiede was moved to a cooler cell last summer by a court order, the complaint alleges that there is a chance TDCJ will not keep him there this year.

During a virtual press conference on Monday, April 22, several prison rights’ advocates and formerly incarcerated individuals spoke out about the issue.  

“What is truly, from a Texans point of view, infuriating, is the failure to acknowledge that everyone in the system, all 130,000 prisoners, are at direct health risk of being impacted by something that has a simple solution, that has been around since the 1930s, and that is air conditioning,” said Austin attorney Jeff Edwards. “The only public space in the state of Texas that is not air conditioned and that does not have climate control is the Texas prison system.”

The Texas Tribune reports that last year was the hottest summer recorded in Texas, and that temperatures continue to rise. Roughly 70% of prisons in the TDCJ system lack air conditioning in the inmate housing units, which can reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher during the summer, per the complaint.

Those within the prison system often suffer from underlying medical conditions that put them at greater risk of heat-related illness, injury, or death, the complaint states. This includes cardiovascular disease, diabetes, mental illnesses, and medications that increase heat sensitivity.

“We’re not talking about making incarcerated Texans comfortable, we’re talking about bringing the temperatures down to safe levels of under 85 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Marci Marie Simmons, community outreach coordinator for Lioness Justice Impacted Women’s Alliance.  “As it is now, the extreme temperatures pose a significant risk to the health and well-being of those in the state’s care.”

Simmons, who was formerly incarcerated, also experienced the unbearable heat within a Texas prison. “Every summer, I watched staff and my incarcerated sisters faint or fall out with heat-induced seizures,” she said.

Donise Cherry, who was incarcerated at the Dr. Lane Murray Unit in Gatesville, told The Messenger that she would lay on the floor under wet sheets to remain cool during the summer.  

“(The) heat in that place was getting up to 140 degrees in the dorm, according to the thermometer in the doors, which during the summer they have maintenance put tape on them so we can't see it unless we have someone climb on the wall to take it off, which we did,” Cherry said.

The complaint outlines dozens of other incidents where inmates suffered from heat-related illnesses or death within Texas prisons.

According to research by Dr. Julie Skarha, an epidemiologist at Brown University, approximately 13% of deaths in Texas prisons occurred during warms months between 2001 and 2019.

“What we have learned, is that heat can cause a lot of health outcomes besides heat stroke or besides heat exhaustion, so this includes renal diseases, cardiovascular mortality, increases in respiratory illnesses, even suicides,” Skarha said.   

The complaint adds that the lack of air conditioning also puts TDCJ officers and staff at risk. In 2018, at least 79 incarcerated people and prison staff reported heat-related illnesses from January to October, according to a report from Texas A&M’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center.

During the press conference, Skarha shared new research indicating that recorded assaults on staff and those incarcerated in Texas prisons without air conditioning also increase during the summer months.

“More data showing that people’s health is being affected, and AC could be a huge way to help prevent that and prevent more harm,” Skarha said.

TDCJ spokesperson Hannah Haney declined to comment on the lawsuit, explaining that the agency does not comment on pending litigation. She said that the system has not had a heat-related death since 2012.

According to the complaint, TDCJ stopped attributing inmate deaths to heat-related issues in 2012.

Haney shared TDCJ’s statement for its air conditioning construction projects that aim to increase the number of cool beds in their facilities. During the 88th Texas Legislative session, the agency received a historic infusion of state funding for major repair and improvement projects, including $85 million to install additional air conditioning.

According to the release, TDCJ has 31 units fully air conditioned and 55 units partially air conditioned. The agency states that it currently has 45,809 cool beds available and 1,984 beds under construction.

From April 15 through October 31, TDCJ said they will implement enhanced procedures to lessen the effects of hot temperatures for those in their facilities, per the release. Heat protocols include screening inmates for medical conditions or medications that could make them more susceptible to heat, providing fans and cooling towels for purchase, ensuring water is available for staff and inmates, and training and wellness checks.