Study: Unairconditioned Texas prisons violate human rights

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by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE

KVUE

Posted on April 23, 2014 at 9:17 AM

AUSTIN, Texas -- A three dozen page report suggests Texas' extreme summer heat is making unairconditioned prisons literal ovens.

"Every year, like clockwork, the incredible heat in Texas prisons is killing people," said Brian McGiverin, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project who has represented inmates in heat-related lawsuits against the state. According to the report, 14 inmates have died from heat-related illness since 2007.

Headed by University of Texas School of Law Human Rights Clinic director Ariel Dulitzky, the report argues dangerous temperatures violate the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment" as well as inmates' human rights. In addition to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), Dulitzky plans to submit the report and its findings to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture.

"We say that this is inhuman, degrading treatment, but it's a question of severity," said Dulitzky. "So we feel that this is close to torture, but we don't call this torture."

With the exception of hospitals, psychiatric facilities, armories and the offices of wardens, Texas prisons are generally unairconditioned. Inmates are allowed to purchase fans for $22.50 in order to circulate the air in their cells. The report argues the price is prohibitively expensive, and cites the suggestion by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that fans are ineffective in preventing heat stroke at temperatures rise above 90 degrees at 35 percent humidity.

According to date collected from TDCJ, temperatures inside the largely unairconditioned prison buildings regularly reaches temperatures considered extremely dangerous by the National Weather Service. One TDCJ document showed the heat index recorded inside the Hutchins State Jail in Dallas on July 19, 2011, reached 120 degrees by 9:30 a.m. and peaked at more than 150 degrees in the afternoon. The report argues Texas should join a number of other southern and southwestern states which prohibit temperatures from rising above 85 degrees inside correctional facilities.

Attorney Jeff Edwards represents the families of eight inmates who died during the broiling summers of 2011 and 2012, all whom suffered from disabilities that made them more sensitive to extreme heat. Edwards accuses TDCJ of knowingly ignoring the risks posed by excessive heat and failing to protect inmates who are particularly susceptible to being overcome by the high temperatures.

"Heat stroke, unlike almost any other illness that people die from in prison, is completely preventable. All you need to do is lower the temperature," said Edwards. "And they've chosen not to do that."

Although the department admits it has not conducted cost analysis, TDCJ argues installing air conditioning at more than a hundred state correctional facilities would be "extremely expensive." Yet the department has received additional scrutiny after building climate-controlled barns for raising pigs featuring misting fans to keep the livestock at a comfortable temperature. It's a situation many corrections officers, who also work without air-conditioning, find infuriating.

"Our state places a greater emphasis on protecting its bacon than protecting the inmates and the officers in the state of Texas, and that's sad," said Lance Lowry, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3807 based in Hunstville. Lowry says many officers he represents have had health issues due to heat stress, and take an increased number of medical absences during the summer months. The result, he argues, is more dangerous conditions inside prisons and additional costs to the state.

"Physically, it wears you down," said Lowry. "It feels like your feet are on fire all day long walking on hot concrete. The bricks in those buildings, the sun heats them up, they don't cool down till about three or four in the morning. You can actually go up and touch those bricks and feel the radiating heat. It takes the buildings that long to cool down."

"I have never worked in an environment where I've seen my co-workers fallout from everything from heart attack to strokes, and these conditions greatly affect that," elaborated Lowry. "We pride ourselves on being tough. Unfortunately this is being tough in the wrong area."

Speaking to KVUE Tuesday afternoon following a legislative hearing on an unrelated matter at the Texas Capitol, Texas Department of Criminal Justice executive director Brad Livingston said he had not yet reviewed the study. Regarding the heat-related deaths and corresponding lawsuits, Livingston said the pending litigation made it difficult for him to comment.

"I'm not in a position to comment further about the lawsuits," said Livingston. "We have had very good success over the long term with respect to our heat protocols; again they are extensive and have been in place for a number of years.

The department explained those protocols in a statement to KVUE via e-mail Tuesday afternoon:

   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.

   TDCJ takes precautions to help reduce heat – related illnesses such as
   providing water and ice to staff and offenders in work and housing
   areas, restricting offender activity during the hottest parts of the
   day, and training staff to identify those with heat related illnesses
   and refer them to medical staff for treatment.

   Although a detailed cost analysis has not been done, retrofitting
   facilities with air conditioning would be extremely expensive. It should
   be noted that medical, psychiatric, and geriatric units are air
   conditioned.

   Below are some system wide protocols that units utilize during extreme
   heat.
   *Provide additional water; ice is provided if available in the work and
   housing areas
   *Restrict outside activity (work hours) in accordance with agency policy
   *Ensure all staff and offenders working in areas of extreme heat (e.g.,
   field, maintenance, yard squad) are provided frequent water breaks
   *Transport offenders during the coolest hours of the day
   *Screen outgoing offenders to ensure the selected mode of transportation
   is appropriate
   *Load and unload transfer vehicles as quickly as possible
   *Refill water coolers on buses at various times during the trip to
   maintain water at appropriate temperature
   *When utilizing fans, air is drawn through the structure and exhausted
   outside, taking full advantage of the fresh air exchange system or
   prevailing winds to assist in the movement of air, as applicable
   *Increase airflow by utilizing blowers, when appropriate, normally used
   to move hot air in the winter; attach ribbons to vents to ensure blowers
   are being used appropriately
   *Allow additional showers for offenders when feasible
   *Allow offenders to wear shorts in dayrooms and recreational areas
   *All custody levels are allowed fans.
   *Train employees and offenders so they are aware of the signs and
   treatment for heat-related illnesses
   *TDCJ staff and medical providers work closely together to identify
   offenders susceptible to heat related issues. A list of identified
   offenders is provided to housing officers who conduct frequent wellness
   checks on the offenders.

   The agency strives to mitigate the impact of temperature extremes.
   Again, TDCJ is committed to making sure that offenders and staff are
   safe during the extreme heat.

Meanwhile those who argue the department has failed in its endeavor to prevent heat-related deaths suggest TDCJ is overstating its efforts.

"What they've done is deliver a Gatorade jug of water two to three times a day to 50 plus men. That is not acceptable," argued Edwards. "Every citizen in Texas would say you know what yes, sure, if you do the crime, do the time. But you ought to be able to do it in a way that you live."

Go here to read the full report. 

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