Appeals Court Rules Heat Can Violate Prisoner Rights

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday ruled in a Texas case that extreme heat can violate prisoners' rights. 

In a case involving a 64-year-old former Texas Department of Criminal Justice inmate who suffered from hypertension and other medical ailments, the federal court in New Orleans held that allowing an inmate to be "exposed to extreme temperatures can constitute a violation of the Eighth Amendment." The case was remanded to the district court for a new trial.

"This is a huge victory for all Texas prisoners," said Scott Medlock, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project's Prisoners' Rights Program. "Hopefully this decision will force TDCJ to reconsider housing prisoners in such dangerous conditions." 

TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said agency officials had not reviewed the opinion and could not comment. 

The Texas Civil Rights Project sued TDCJ in 2008 over conditions that Eugene Blackmon endured while he was in custody serving three years in the Garza East Unit in Beeville. Blackmon was a minimum-security inmate with high blood pressure. For more than 50 consecutive days that summer, according to court documents, temperatures inside the unit reached levels that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association considers cautionary or dangerous. Temperatures inside the prison, Blackmon's lawyers said, reached a heat index of 130 degrees.

Blackmon, who is now out of prison, said he suffered dizziness, nausea and headaches. Even after he filed complaints, wardens took little or no action to help, the TCRP says in the suit, which argued that conditions amounted to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

The court ruled that the risks to Blackmon's health were "obvious" and that prison staff "were deliberately indifferent." 

In court documents, TDCJ officials argued that Blackmon did not show he suffered physical injuries and that the issue was moot since he was no longer in that prison. 

Only 21 of the 111 TDCJ units are fully air-conditioned, according to the agency. The other 90 are partially air-conditioned, usually in the medical or education area of the unit rather than the housing area.

The family of Larry Gene McCollum, who suffered heat stroke last July at the Hutchins State Jail in Dallas and died, filed a similar lawsuit last month. The Texas Civil Rights Project and Austin attorney Jeff Edwards filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Texas prison officials on the family’s behalf.

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