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Texas inmates sue for relief from prison cells that ‘hold heat in like a parked car’

A jail cell at the federal penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas. (REUTERS/Jenevieve Robbins)

Texas prisoners have sued (again) to force the state’s Department of Criminal Justice to bring temperatures in their cells down to 88 degrees or less.

Most people would probably consider the high 80’s to be uncomfortably hot, but the federal lawsuit — filed on behalf of four inmates at a facility that houses ill, geriatric and disabled prisoners — alleges that the status quo is far worse.

According to the suit, filed in Houston this week by the Texas Civil Rights Project and other advocates, the cells at Wallace Pack Unit, near College Station, are so hot “that inmates have resorted to wrapping themselves in damp towels and lying on the concrete floors,” according to Texas Monthly.

Inmates lay towels on the burning hot stainless steel tables to rest their elbows. The walls, also made of metal, trap in hot air like a “parked car.” Some dorm windows are sealed shut; others that do open don’t provide relief from the heat.

A “ventilation system” blows the sweltering air (which often exceeds 100 degrees) from outside into the cells, but the lawsuit alleges that the system does nothing to cool the place — “much in the same way a vent system in a car doesn’t provide any comfort and does not lower the temperature when it is run without the car’s air conditioning.”

In fact, the lawsuit claims, it is often cooler in the blazing sun outside than it is inside the housing areas.

All of this isn’t a new phenomenon, because in most cases, Texas prisons are not air-conditioned, according to the Houston Chronicle. The Chronicle reports that there are more than half a dozen other hot-prison lawsuits in Texas.

Only a few rooms accessible to Pack Unit inmates — the library, visitation room and education room — are air-conditioned. And most of the approximately 1,300 men currently incarcerated there — many serving time for non-violent crimes — can only go to those locations once or twice a week.

Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, told the Austin American-Statesman that the prison remedies extreme heat by allowing fans, short pants, water breaks and additional showers — “when feasible.”

Outside activity is restricted, and ice is provided if available, Clark said.
“Although a detailed cost analysis has not been done, retrofitting facilities with air conditioning would be extremely expensive,” he said.

Lawyers for the prisoners argue that the conditions at the Pack Unit are particularly egregious because of the age and health of inmates housed there — half of whom are over the age of 50. According to the lawsuit, there are only 551 air-conditioned beds statewide in a system that holds over 150,000 prisoners. And at least 12 inmates have died of heat stroke in Texas prisons since 2011, they say.

The lawsuit claims that living conditions at Pack Unit violate the Americans with Disability Act as well as the inmates’ constitutional right of freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.

In a statement, one of the inmates — 69-year-old Marvin Yates, who suffers from hypertension and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — told Texas Monthly:

I don’t know if I will make it this summer. The heat and humidity are so bad inside I have trouble breathing.

Texas Civil Rights Project attorney Brian McGiverin told Texas Public Media that the lawsuit “is not … about making prisons comfortable. It is merely a lawsuit about trying to ensure that the heat conditions are not lethal. The dangers posed by heat in Texas summers are well-known and uncontroversial.”

Abby Phillip is a national political reporter for the Washington Post. She can be reached at On Twitter: @abbydphillip

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