Report: Extreme heat in Texas prisons killing inmates

CBS News

AUSTIN, Texas - A new report suggests that Texas prisons get so hot in the summer that they actually become dangerous to inmates, violating their human rights, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The 40-page report is from the University of Texas Law School's Human Rights Clinic, which recommends installing air conditioning units in the 109 state-run prisons. The paper reports that there are currently six pending lawsuits against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) over eight heat-related deaths in Texas prisons which occurred in the past three years.

According to the Chronicle, 19 Texas convicts have died since 1998 from heat-related illnesses during summer months. In all cases, the heat index reported in the cell topped 115 degrees, and in one lawsuit, 149 degrees.

"Continuing to disregard the plight of TDCJ inmates subject to extreme heat is not an option," the document states. "[Texas prisons] would be in violation of international human rights standards and the requirements of the Eighth Amendment if it were to do so." The U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

TDCJ Executive Director Brad Livingston told the Chronicle that he could not comment specifically on the report due to pending litigation. However, he did say that the TDCJ is following appropriate protocols when it comes to taking care of inmates in hot temperatures.

"We have significant protocols in place governing the movement of offenders early in the day for work assignments, we supply ice water and have fans and other equipment to increase air movement," Livingston told the paper.

The University of Texas, citing the federal Centers for Disease Control, found fans and ventilation "to be ineffective in preventing heat-related injuries in very hot and humid conditions, such as those present in TDCJ facilities."

Lancy Lowry, president of a Huntsville union representing correctional officers, told the Chronicle that he had seen the report and agreed with the findings. "It's time for the Legislature to make the capital investment required to improve the conditions in these prisons," he said.

According to the paper, over half of Texas' prisons are built with outer walls at least partially constructed from metal, and those facilities are consistently among the hottest in the state.

Scott Medlock, an Austin attorney who represents convicts' families in several heat-related death suits, told the Chronicle, "The current temperatures are inhumane. They should see the handwriting on the wall and cool the prisons."