Advocates Sue Texas Over Prisoners Being “Cooked To Death”

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Spring is almost over. Soon, tens of thousands of Texas inmates in prisons without air conditioning will begin suffering through another summer of 100-plus degree days, every day, month after month. Some will collapse and be taken to hospitals. Some will die.

So organizers like Amite Dominick, president of Texas Prisons Community Advocates, are reviving their fight to force the state to install air conditioning in the prisons. This year, a lawsuit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will be part of that effort. The suit, filed on April 22 by TPCA, Texas C.U.R.E., Lioness Justice Impacted Women’s Alliance, and other groups, asks the federal courts to declare TDCJ’s heat policy to be cruel and unusual punishment. The suit demands that TDCJ maintain a temperature between 65o and 85o Fahrenheit in all occupied areas of its prisons.

“Texas prisoners are being cooked to death,” Dominick said. “As alleged in our complaint, approximately 85,000 of the 130,000 individuals incarcerated in Texas prisons currently lack air conditioning in their living areas. Hundreds have died and suffered serious heat-related illnesses because of the sweltering temperatures.”

The lawsuit cites a recent study estimating that 271 state inmates died from extreme heat between 2001-2019. It notes that TDCJ has not admitted to any inmate heat-related death since 2012. Prison authorities maintain that their heat mitigation efforts – offering ice and respite in air-conditioned spaces in the prisons – keep prisoners safe.

Those efforts weren’t enough to protect Bernhardt Tiede, the subject of Richard Linklater’s 2011 film Bernie, starring Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey. At a press conference announcing the lawsuit, Linklater (who grew up in Huntsville and recently released a documentary meditation on the city, “Hometown Prison”) described how the 65-year-old Tiede collapsed during the heat last summer.

“Bernie had what appears to be a stroke while being housed in extreme heat,” Linklater said. “He was taken to the ER and then, soon enough, returned to the extreme heat. Without our quick legal action and attorney Jodi Cole, he very likely would have died. He is now almost completely blind in one eye and continues to have facial paralysis. He’s not okay, but he survived last summer with the court’s intervention.”

Linklater called the prison heat a humanitarian crisis and pointed out that corrections officers suffer along with inmates. Michelle Deitch, the director of UT’s Prison and Jail Innovation Lab, echoed his thoughts, saying that many COs, like the prisoners, are older and suffer from issues like diabetes that are worsened by heat. She said the lack of AC contributes to TDCJ’s staff shortage crisis.

“The staff are also victims, day in and day out,” Deitch said. “They have to work in unbearable conditions, wearing heavy uniforms, doing difficult tasks. Is it any wonder that they don’t want to work in those conditions?”

Eleven others spoke, including Charlie Malouff and Marci Marie, two previously incarcerated advocates, and Janet Delk, who fears for her husband’s safety after he collapsed from the heat last summer. They repeated stories of how inmates try to cool off by ladling water from their toilets and lying down in it.

The attorneys who will press the lawsuit spoke as well, including Jeff Edwards, who successfully sued TDCJ in 2012 to force Texas to air condition the Wallace Pack Unit, which holds old and infirm inmates. Edwards assured listeners that TDCJ knows that the heat in its prisons is dangerous. He said that even though the agency has been slow to install AC, the situation is not hopeless.

“It’s only impossible until it’s done,” Edwards said, quoting Nelson Mandela. “All it takes is people who care. That’s it. And that is the fundamental question that we’re asking the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and its leadership: Do you care?”