Lawsuit Says High Prison Temperatures Constitute Cruel and Unusual Punishment


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 — 11 out of 121 are fully air conditioned, with the rest only air conditioned in common areas — 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.