By Brandi Grissom
It is officially swelter season in Texas, and for most of the 150,000 inmates in the state's sprawling prison system, it means another summer of seemingly endless months in cells where temperatures can climb north of 100 degrees.
How many more summers prisoners live without air conditioning will depend on how and when the courts rule in a years-long fight between prisoner advocates and Texas corrections officials.
The two sides are locked in a battle over whether super-heated conditions in Texas prisons are unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment and jeopardize inmates' lives.
Advocates argue the extreme heat is particularly harmful for the thousands of inmates who are elderly or suffer from medical or mental health conditions. They want the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to provide air conditioning to regulate the temperatures.
Department officials contend that they already take adequate measures to ensure the safety of inmates and staff at state prisons, and that adding air conditioning to already aging buildings would be prohibitively expensive. State officials haven't estimated the exact cost to add it or run it annually, the suit contends.
"The well-being of staff and offenders is a top priority for the agency, and we remain committed to making sure that both are safe during the extreme heat," department spokesman Jason Clark said in an emailed statement.
Only 30 of Texas' 109 prison units are fully air-conditioned. Particular areas of other units are air-conditioned, as are medical, geriatric and psychiatric facilities. Since 1998, prisoner advocates say, at least 20 inmates have died from heat-related causes.
To provide relief, Clark said, Texas prisons offer inmates ice and water and allow them to take additional showers and wear shorts,among other measures. Officers also are trained to recognize signs of heat-related illness.
Those measures are inadequate, though, inmates' lawyers say. They don't argue that their clients should be comfortable but that temperatures remain at a safe level to prevent health complications. County jails in Texas are required to keep temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees, and even the cells at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that house terrorism suspects are air-conditioned, the lawyers contend.
Both inmates and prison officials had been looking for guidance from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a Louisiana case that challenged the lack of air conditioning on death row at the infamous Angola prison. Last year, though, the judges sent that case back to a lower court with mixed findings. The court said the super-heated conditions were unconstitutional, but it stopped short of prescribing air conditioning, telling the lower court to find a different solution that would provide relief for inmates.
With that case pending, two heat-related lawsuits are winding their way slowly through Texas courts.
Last week, a Texas district court judge ruled in one case that the prison system must provide safe drinking water to inmates at the Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota. In a lawsuit over that unit's super-heated conditions, inmates alleged that the water officials gave them to cool off with was contaminated with hazardous levels of arsenic. The inmates are demanding cooler conditions and safe water.
More than half of Pack Unit's 1,478 inmates are older than 50, and at times, temperatures in the cells there have climbed to 110 degrees.
"No accommodations are made relating to the extreme heat for prisoners based on age, even though it is known to be associated with increased risk of heat-related illness, injury and death," wrote lawyer Jeff Edwards, one of the attorneys representing the inmates, in court filings.
The judge in that case has yet to decide on the question of heat in the Wallace Pack Unit, but he agreed to allow other inmates at the prison to join the lawsuit as a class action.
A ruling in that case would only directly affect the Wallace Pack Unit, but Scott Medlock, another attorney for the inmates, said he hoped a decision favoring the prisoners would send a message to the corrections agency.
"The ultimate goal is to make sure TDCJ gets the message that this is unacceptable," Medlock said. "These temperatures are dangerous, and they're playing games with people's lives."
Clark, the criminal justice department spokesman, declined to comment on pending litigation.
The other Texas case is a wrongful-death lawsuit in which the families of Larry Gene McCollum and seven other inmates who died from heat-related conditions have sued the prison system. The families are seeking compensation for their relatives' deaths.
"If the state gets found liable in these cases, and the state continues to operate prisons where the temperatures get really high in the summer, the state would be really foolish to continue to roll the dice," said Medlock.
It's not only the inmates who want cooler conditions, though. Corrections officers have joined the call for relief. The Texas correction officers union filed an amicus brief with the 5th Circuit supporting demands for air conditioning in Louisiana, hoping the outcome would affect Texas, too.
Lance Lowry, president of the Texas correction officers' union, said mental health crises among inmates skyrocket during the summer months, making unpleasant working conditions even worse. And often, he said, the officers also succumb to heat stroke and other heat-related illnesses.
"We're already short on officers, and you're going to end up taking officers from a prison unit that is not adequately staffed anyway," Lowry said. "These prison administrators need to wake up and realize, yes, prison air conditioning does cost, but there's another cost that they're not figuring into the equation."
Advocates expect it will take court action to force the criminal justice agency to reduce temperatures in Texas prisons. And that could be years away.
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