Real “Bernie” Sues Prison System, Is Allowed Air-Conditioned Cell

Jack Black as Bernie in the 2011 film directed by Richard Linklater

Bernhardt Tiede, the mortician whose murder of a wealthy widow served as the inspiration for Richard Linklater’s black comedy Bernie, has been granted an additional 30 days in an air-conditioned cell.

Austin’s federal judge, Robert Pitman, granted the order on Sept. 28, as a previous 14-day order protecting Tiede from the extreme heat this summer was set to expire.

As reported by the Statesman’s Tony Plohetski, Linklater is helping Tiede get the word out about the dangerous heat that advocates believe has killed at least a dozen inmates this summer. The director visited Tiede at the Estelle Unit in East Texas in August, before he had been moved to an air-conditioned cell. At the visit, Linklater made a video, which the Statesman posted to YouTube, of Tiede describing the heat.

“You wake up and you’re just rolling in your sweat,” Tiede said. “You can’t get any sleep at night. It’s just really, really bad. There’s no escape. You can’t get away from it unless you put something wet on your face or you have a chill towel. And you think maybe in the next five minutes it’ll cool down. And it doesn’t, ever. It doesn’t cool down – ever, ever.”

Tiede has several conditions that make extreme heat very dangerous – diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. He told Linklater that he had a pair of incidents this summer in which he couldn’t walk, incidents that led him to believe he was having a stroke, for which the prison sent him to the hospital. On Aug. 24, he filed a lawsuit against Attorney General Ken Paxton and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs the prisons, asking the court to force TDCJ to house him in a cell that gets no hotter than 85 degrees.

“[Tiede] has experienced serious, chronic and acute, heat related symptoms resulting in permanent facial disfiguration from partial paralysis, ongoing chronic ear infections, and ongoing chronic health conditions related to heat, because TDCJ houses Mr. Tiede, a 65-year-old man with Diabetes and Hypertension, in a cell with no air-conditioning,” the suit reads.

TDCJ is continuing a lockdown of the entire prison system that began in early September, when the heat was still breaking records. The agency said the lockdown couldn’t be delayed to cooler weeks because of an urgent need to address the high rate of inmate-on-inmate murders this year, which it blames on more drugs flowing into the prisons since 2018. The TDCJ did not answer the Chronicle’s request for homicide data, and did not provide data that might demonstrate an increased presence of drugs in recent weeks.

Advocates believe the lockdown was launched as retaliation against prisoners whose outspoken complaints about conditions made headlines. They have proposed a different rationale for the increase in the murders, an idea that TDCJ has apparently not entertained – the heat. Linklater, in his discussion with Tiede, asked how the heat affects relations between prisoners. “Their tempers are just extremely touchy – you can’t speak to people when they’re hot,” Tiede replied. “I mean, they’re very touchy.”

Tiede also validated reports from prisoners’ families that guards are refusing to fulfill their duties or even come to work. “They don’t do their rounds, the pickets are not air-conditioned … so they have no relief whatsoever unless they leave their post. And the corrections officers don’t want to come to work. So we have a huge staff shortage. I’m surprised that they still have this [prison] open. The ratio of officers to inmates is just so out of proportion.”

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