Prisons

Lawsuit Says High Prison Temperatures Constitute Cruel and Unusual Punishment

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During last summer's heat wave, something like 46 Texans died from the weather. Several of those individuals were members of Texas' 150,000-strong prison population. According to KHOU Houston, the family of Larry Gene McCollum has filed a lawsuit against the Hutchins State Jail in Dallas. The lawsuit, backed by the Texas Civil Rights Project, claims that the conditions in Texas jails β€” 11 out of 121 are fully air conditioned, with the rest only air conditioned in common areas β€” violate the Eighth Amendment in that their heat levels constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The KHOU story notes that heat indexes outside the prisons reached 130-150 degrees last summer.

McCollum was a 58 year old man serving 11 months for forgery. According to his family, he was afraid to be transferred to Hutchins because he had heard about the dire conditions. 

According to The Texas Tribune, McCollum's newly arrived status may have hastened his death:

Scott Medlock, director of the TCRP's prisoners' rights program, said the Hutchins facility was not fully air-conditioned and the temperature inside the jail last summer was nearly the same as outside, about 96 degrees with a heat index between dangerous and extremely dangerous. Medlock said that McCollum's body temperature was above 109 degrees when he arrived at the hospital. Prison officials distributed limited amounts of water to the inmates, but because McCollum had not yet received an identification card, he could not purchase a cup to drink the water. He could not purchase a fan, either.

When McCollum arrived, Medlock said, officers welcomed him with the phrase "Welcome to hell."

After three days at the state jail, on July 22, 2011, McCollum collapsed. He had suffered from hypertension and was overweight, but his children said he had been relatively healthy. He died July 28, and the autopsy attributed his death to living in a hot environment.

The Texas Civil Rights Project intends to file lawsuits on behalf of other inmates and their relatives. And earlier in the summer, the New Orleans 5th Circuit remanded a new trial in the lawsuit filed by former Texas inmate Eugene Blackmon, aged 63 and on medication for high blood pressure. Blackmon was in (a minimum security) prison in 2008, and the TCRP filed a lawsuit on his behalf that argued Blackmon's civil rights were violated when he suffered from dizziness, nausea, and headaches when his cell reached a heat index of 130 degrees. The 5th Circuit agreed [pdf] in a non-precidential ruling that high temperatures could indeed constitute cruel and unusual punishment. (County jails in Texas have specific temperature standards of 65-85 degrees, but state ones do not.) Eight years ago that court ruled that the standards in Mississippi jails ("windows had been sealed shut, fans and cold water were unavailable and access to showers was not allowed") were not acceptable

Prison officials in Texas counter that they restrict work detail and provide ice and fans when temperatures become dangerous, but this doesn't seem to have happened with McCollum. They also note that the inmates who died (possibly ten of them in Texas last summer alone) had other conditions including heart and weight problems, being on medication, and hypertension, as well as advanced age.

One Hutchins inmate:

Kenneth Wayne James, was "acting delirious and urinating on the walls" about 45 minutes before they found him passed out in his cell.  An autopsy attributed his death to "classic heat stroke.

Prison officials say that James had high blood pressure and a history of cocaine abuse. 

Even ignoring qualms and questions about guilt, innocence, and the effectiveness of the criminal justice system, fundamentally there is something troubling about the ease with which America sends it citizens to tiny, locked rooms. Sure, forgery is a crime, but does it require that a 58 year old men be caged in miserable conditions alongside violent people? Is it worth it?

And then there's this comment from Texas state Sen. State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston):

"I'm sorry about the conditions, but I guess I could be real direct and say, you know, if you don't want to be there, don't commit a crime….We have limited taxpayer dollars and resources," Whitmire said.  "And we need to use it as best we can.  And it's not going to be spent for air conditioning of our prisons."

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is advocating for a prisoner reduction at the federal level, as is the Department of Justice; both say that federal prisoner numbers have reached unsustainable levels. (The Federal Bureau of Prisons is 40 percent over capacity). The level of crowding in California prisons was ruled to be unconstitutional in June 2011, so there is a precedent for ruling prisons conditions as in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

The elimination and freeing of ever single non-violent criminal from all local, state, and federal prisons (including white collar criminals who should probably have to pay restitution) would be a great start in eliminating the need for these sort of lawsuits and would hopefully diminish the miserable conditions for many of the U.S.'s 2 million plus inmates. Then, of course, you get rid of all laws against consensual activities.

Check out Reason's "Criminal Injustice" issue from July 2011 in order to delve more into some of the horrors of prisons.

NEXT: No School Transfers for White Kids

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  1. The KHOU story notes that heat indexes outside the prisons reached 130-150 degrees last summer.

    Two words: Global. Warming.

    1. Damn, Ken, you beat me to it.

    2. When prisoners stop breathing, they radically lower their carbon footprint as they don’t exhale CO2 anymore.

      1. i think biodegrading releases CO2.

        1. True, but that’s an one-time charge instead of a recurring one.

    3. Or the fact its inhumane to keep people in these kinds of conditions.

  2. Sorry, I can’t feel too sorry for prisoners. Lots of people on the outside live in the same conditions. I find it ironic that a condition that existed for 100% of the population when our nation was formed, is now considered by some to be “cruel and unusual” punishment for prisoners.

    1. No. People didn’t live in airless cells in 100 degree weather. They lived in houses designed for living without AC and did things like sleeping on roofs.

      Sorry, but if the state wants to lock people up, they have a responsibility for seeing that they don’t die.

      1. John, is it back-handed of me to say that I a pleasantly surprised by your answer?

        It is. I will say it anyway.

        1. Yes Lucy it is. What the hell kind of monster did you think I was?

          1. John only believes in killing foreign criminals. Good domestic American criminals deserve better than dronin’.

            1. War sucks Randian. But criminals are not in one.

              1. War especially sucks when you want it to go on forever with no definable criteria for who the enemy is and nobody can stop you.

                1. Well Randian, if the enemy would put on uniforms and fight by the laws of war instead of using civilians as human shields, we wouldn’t have that problem now would we?

                  There is a reason why such practices were frowned upon for most of history. It wasn’t until we started rewarding and celebrating such criminals as “freedom fighters” that we started getting more of them.

                  1. You cannot just declare whoever you want as an “enemy” with no check or balance on that power.

                    Well, unless you’re the Executive in the American Empire. Then you can.

                    1. You’re crossing the logic streams. I am against unchecked executive power and I totally love the drone wars.

                    2. The fact that you are inconsistent doesn’t make Randian’s logic wrong.

                    3. That’s not inconsistent at all.

                  2. The question is though, is Gitmo air conditioned? We already know they’re hydrated (re: waterboarding), but are they kept in nice dark, air conditioned quarters while made to stand in a spread eagle position for hours on end?

                  3. Well Randian, if the enemy would put on uniforms and fight by the laws of war instead of using civilians as human shields, we wouldn’t have that problem now would we?

                    Bob throws a rock at you from behind a fence; when you turn around after being hit, you only see Chuck by the fence. Therefore, you have justification to beat the shit out of Chuck because Bob didn’t show his face. Is that how it works?

                    1. Nope. If Bob endangers my life by driving at me with his car and I shoot him but also accidentally shoot Chuck, the blame for everything goes to Bob.

                    2. I hope you don’t own a gun, because you’re totally wrong on the law. You’re legally responsible for anyone injured by a shot you fired (except a person attacking you).

                    3. Then the law needs to change. I am speaking of moral rather than legal.

                    4. No Cyto, you just need to be a cop.

                      Regardless, you really need to make sure what’s behind your target when you shoot.

                      Sucks, doesn’t it?

              2. War sucks Randian. But criminals are not in one.

                Of course they are. They are lawfully captured prisoners in the War on Drugs/Crime/Property/the Fourth Amendment.

                (note: Just being cynical. There are plenty of people in prison who belong there. And there are some in prison who don’t.)

            1. Being consistent makes you a monster, I guess.

              Any idea what prisons were like in the summer in 1789?

      2. Ditto John – well said!

      3. That’s what they did in the Yucatan, when I lived there.

        Sleeping in a hammock helps too since the air circulates all around you…

        The other thing they do is they get up real early in the morning to do everything that needs to get done–and I mean business people, elementary school kids, everybody! …and they come home before the heat of the afternoon takes hold, eat a huge meal and then go to sleep until the sun goes down. Then the business people all go back to work just as the sun goes down, the kids go back to school, and dinner is often served around midnight–when it isn’t so effing hot.

        People in prisons can’t do any of that stuff. They’re locked there. Locking people in rooms together in temperatures like that is cruel. We throw people in jail for leaving their kids locked in a car in those temperatures. A lot of people would call the police if they saw someone lock adog in their car in those temperatures.

        …what justifies treating prisoners less humanely than dogs?

      4. Hate to break this to you, but in many places in the humid south, it’s just flat out miserable anywhere in the summer. Maybe they should be out in the fields busting rocks in a chain gang?

        It seems like everything except sitting on your ass and watching TV is cruel and unusual punishment for prisoners.

        1. Right, like dying is the deserved form of punishment for some old guy who is locked up for selling his Oxycontin.

          You’re a fucking monster. Go off somewhere and die painfully and slowly, please.

          1. I’m sorry, I didn’t know the topic was about WHY people were in prison. Nice bait and switch.

            There are people out working in conditions like this, earning a living….but prisoners need A/C!

            You fuckers need to head to Houston and get a job doing roofing work, and then bitch about how hot it is in prison.

            1. last I checked, whenever you’re roofing in houston, you can always stop roofing and sit in the shade and drink cold water. you can also quit roofing and go get a desk job or say “fuck it” and move back to New York.

              Are we letting prisoners have these options?

              And yes, I live in Houston. Its miserable right now.

              1. “last I checked, whenever you’re roofing in houston, you can always stop roofing and sit in the shade and drink cold water”

                The last time you checked must have been never.

                1. The last time you checked must have been never.

                  Are you usually this dense or is today special in that regard?

                2. Apparently when you’re a roofer in Houston you have guns pointed at your face forcing you to keep roofing.

                  GW said it, so it must be true.

            2. People voluntarily subject themselves to X temperature, with the power to stop subjecting themselves to X temperature, therefore it is permissible to subject prisoners, who cannot stop subjecting themselves, to the same conditions, only in cramped cells?

              Again, you are not well.

        2. It just sorta gives you a boner to think of that mean old forger dying of heat stroke, doesn’t it?

        3. I hear that strawmen spontaneously burst into flames in the south.

        4. Maybe the one who are physically fit enough should be. But jail should not be a death sentence just because you are old and fat.

      5. No. People didn’t live in airless cells in 100 degree weather. They lived in houses designed for living without AC and did things like sleeping on roofs.

        I guarantee that prisoners in 1789 did not sleep on the fucking roof and didn’t have massive ventilation in their cells. And sleeping on the roof is a dodge, as that doesn’t address the main problem which occurs during the day.

        And “houses designed for living without AC”? Yeah, there are some modifications you can make to make it somewhat more livable, but it’s still going to be seriously hot inside a non-AC house on hot days. If it were so easy to design a house that stayed cool, people wouldn’t be spending a fortune on AC systems and the power they suck up.

      6. Sorry, but if the state wants to lock people up, they have a responsibility for seeing that they don’t die.

        That they don’t die as a direct result of the prison conditions. Which we don’t know in this case.

        Under no circumstances should a life sentence be a guarantee of eternal life.

      7. Also, they often DID die from the heat.

      8. Airless cells?

        Where?

        There’s ventilation, John.

        And I love this–“They lived in houses designed for living without AC”. Lived? Most houses in this country are “designed for living without AC”. Most were built before central air, John.

        People still–to this day–do without central air. Billions deal with 100 degree weather–and have never experienced AC–some have never experienced ventilation.

        No, the natural state of the world is not ‘cruel and unusual punishment’.

        The deaths are unfortunate, but heat deaths occur outside of prisons as well. Should AC be mandated everywhere to prevent ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ from overrunning the nation?

        Again, the deaths are regrettable, but you must remember that they are a side effect of what’s known as ‘living on Earth’.

    2. yes, and lots of people died of heat stroke in extreme temperatures. we have something called air conditioning. if you’re imprisoned in the south, it should be available. I’m not saying it has to maintain 65F, but keeping heat indexes from exceeding dangerous levels, yeah. Also, no prisoner should be denied water ever except for medical reasons.

  3. 130-150 F heat index sounds high for outdoor conditions, even in middle texas. indoor heat index I could see, some of those prisons are ovens that trap heat.

    in any case, this seems like an open and shut case. just because you’re in prison doesn’t mean you have to roast in a box. All prisons should monitor temperature and keep it reasonable and provide water access at all times.

    1. Carr: Them clothes got laundry numbers on them. You remember your number and always wear the ones that has your number. Any man forgets his number spends a night in the box. These here spoons you keep with you. Any man loses his spoon spends a night in the box. There’s no playing grab-ass or fighting in the building. You got a grudge against another man, you fight him Saturday afternoon. Any man playing grab-ass or fighting in the building spends a night in the box. First bell’s at five minutes of eight when you will get in your bunk. Last bell is at eight. Any man not in his bunk at eight spends the night in the box. There is no smoking in the prone position in bed. To smoke you must have both legs over the side of your bunk. Any man caught smoking in the prone position in bed… spends a night in the box. You get two sheets. Every Saturday, you put the clean sheet on the top… the top sheet on the bottom… and the bottom sheet you turn in to the laundry boy. Any man turns in the wrong sheet spends a night in the box.

      1. Let me guess, if you have a problem with any of the above….you spend a night in the box?

      2. +1 for mention of Cool Hand Luke. I’ve watched it just the other day, after seeing it the first time some forty-odd years ago.

      3. They let them SMOKE?

  4. Climate control in prison facilities seems to be chronically problematic. I know of two jails around these parts, one old and one newly constructed, that both had air conditioning issues. (The older one was brutal in summer.)

    I’m surprised corrections officer unions aren’t better at forcing the issue, since their people have to work in those living conditions.

    1. tell me about it.

      mine threw a fit when they took away the bottled water (culligan man?) in the office.

      the dept. replaced it πŸ™‚

      your tax dollars at work!

  5. Don’t mess with Texas.

    1. +1 Lone Star

  6. Fuck you, skwerlz. If you’re going to be like that, I’ll just comment more.

  7. If you’ve done nothing wrong, you won’t be put in jail (cause we never jail the wrong person). So you won’t be in “hell”, so nothing to be concerned with.

    Plus, they’re just prisoners, right?

    /derp

    PS We had a case in MI recently in which (IIRC) a mentally-ill prisoner was basically neglected and not given water, and died in his cell from dehydration. Guards knew he was there. Disgusting. “Ye shall be judged by how ye treat the least among you….” Fuck. They may be father-rapin’ murderers, but unless the jury’s agreed to death by heat stroke, they shouldn’t be treated worse than animals.

    1. i wonder if prison guards there are subjected to the same battery of psych tests we are?

      i would suggest that in using these tests, screening for lack of empathy is key.

      if you are going to give somebody the kind of authoritah over other people that guards have (excuse me… “corrections officers” … :l ), then you need to ensure they are in possession of plenty of empathy

      it absolutely is a job requirement

  8. The KHOU story notes that heat indexes outside the prisons reached 130-150 degrees last summer.

    That cannot possibly be correct. Even on the hottest day in Houston, with its crazy humidity, the heat index won’t get to 120?F.

    1. the heat index is suspicious for outside. Usually 100 degree days have much less humidity. Maybe it was one recorded day that reached up there and they ran with it.

  9. Lucy, KHOU is a Houston TV station. It is not located in San Antonio. #correction

  10. imo, the state absolutely should lose this one.

    you wanna lock ’em up, then you gotta provide accomodations that are not dangerous like that.

    and to deny the guy water, etc. except for technicalities?

    i hope the state loses, and loses big.

    it’s bad enough that in many cases, the state shirks its duty to protect prisoners from sexual assault, etc. but this is also a terrible injustice.

    a prison sentence shouldn’t mean a death sentence

    period

    1. Lack of AC isn’t dangerous, or the human species would never have made it to the late 20th century.

      The water denial is a problem, of course.

      1. you leave out the most relevant factor

        it wasn’t lack of AC.

        it was lack of AC within a specific building/environment he was contained in and had no choice to leave

        humans evolved with the ability to move. his ability to move to a (less hot etc.) alternative location was restricted by the state

        if you are going to restrict somebody legally to a specific environment, you have the duty to make sure it meets certain safety requirements

        you leave out that crucial point- the building he was confined to, and most probably – the room

        1. And Dunphy wins.

        2. What less hot alternative locations were typically available in Texas in 1789?

          1. Not Texas?

            They didn’t have anesthetic for surgery in 1789 either Tulpa. Is that our standard now?

          2. There was no Texas in 1789.

    2. Thanks for that.

    3. I tried to simply write “thanks for that” and the Spam filter decided I wasn’t real. So that’s pretty amazing.

      But uh, no, good comment, thanks, man. I am glad to see that you believe that.

  11. Prison officials distributed limited amounts of water to the inmates, but because McCollum had not yet received an identification card, he could not purchase a cup to drink the water. He could not purchase a fan, either.

    This is going to be the clincher. Charging for cigarettes and magazines is one thing, charging for cups and rationing water on a 100 degree day (or damn near enough as to make no difference), is downright sadistic.

  12. And then there’s this comment from Texas state Sen. State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston): “I’m sorry about the conditions, but I guess I could be real direct and say, you know, if you don’t want to be there, don’t commit a crime….”

    Oh, you saved the day again, captain Obvious!

    […]”We have limited taxpayer dollars and resources,”

    Mexican prisons also have limited taxpayer dollars and resources, which is why authorities down there allow families to bring amenities to their loved ones, like fucking WATER and a fucking FAN.

    Asshole.

  13. Sure, forgery is a crime, but does it require that a 58 year old men be caged in miserable conditions alongside violent people?

    Hey, forgery is a very serious crime!!

    The government hates the competition. So don’t do it!

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