Texas Inmates Endure Extreme Temperatures In Their Cells
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has taken the lead and is meeting with attorneys from the Austin-based Edwards Law to mediate multiple wrongful death lawsuits brought about by families of prison inmates who passed away in their cells during heat waves in 2011 and 2012. The families have claimed the state’s prisons were equipped with inadequate heating and cooling systems, which caused the victims to die of heat exhaustion. Attorney Jeff Edwards picked up the case.
Also under discussion between the parties is the class action lawsuit brought by inmates at the geriatric Pack Unit, 75 miles northwest of Houston, which, like many of the state’s prisons, does not have air conditioning in its housing units, according to statements made by its inmates. Families of the prisoners being housed in the facility have claimed that during the heat waves, the unit had reached sweltering temperatures well above 100 degrees on average.
And, air conditioning isn’t the only issue. Just weeks ago, inmates across Texas endured freezing temperatures due to broken or turned-off heaters and drafty facilities, according to their statements. After families, advocates, and lawmakers complained to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, however, officials responded that all facilities were properly heated. Only one had a broken heater that had been “quickly repaired,” and therefore, was a non-issue.
Despite this response, inmates are saying nothing has improved. According to reports collected by Texas Inmate Families Association from the families of the prisoners, there are over a dozen different units with little or no heat. Inmates are also reporting poorly-sealed windows, no extra blankets, and heat getting cut off abruptly in the middle of the night. And, some have stated the cold air blowing through their units has come from windows that were purposely broken during the heat spells, or by the recent hail storms.
Edwards argues that the conditions these individuals are enduring is “cruel and unusual punishment,” violating their constitutional rights.
“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Edwards said of the recent complaints that the cells are now too cold. “TDCJ’s inability to manage these aging facilities is astounding. They don’t seem to even have the vague knowledge of a core constitutional right.”
The attorney added, “The mindset is that they have a specific budget and there isn’t any money to go toward repairs. That nothing can be moved. That mindset needs to change. When people on a tight budget don’t have heat in these conditions, they move things around and find a way to pay for the heat.”
It’s the kind of sacrifice a person would make for their own survival, Edwards said, and yet no one seems to care about the thousands of prisoners suffering. He said conditions have only gotten worse now that many inmates have contracted the especially-resistant flu virus that has been circulating as of late. Elderly prisoners and those with weakened immune systems who have shown signs of the virus are in an especially difficult spot and risk dying from their symptoms without proper ventilation and temperature control in their cells.