The Austin Chronicle

TDCJ Fails to Protect Prisoners From Extreme Heat

By Jordan Smith, April 23, 2014, 11:55am, Newsdesk

In 2010, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Risk Management Division reminded employees in "heat awareness training" of the "common sense tips" that could prevent a "heat-related pet emergency," including that when left indoors one answer two questions: Is air conditioning available? And, will the house stay cool "through the heat of the day?"

The same level of care is not considered for Texas inmates, however, who live without meaningful climate control in facilities where indoor temperatures routinely, and for prolonged periods, exceed 100 degrees, according to a new report released Monday by the University of Texas School of Law Human Rights Clinic. The conditions many of the more than 150,000 Texas prisoners are subjected to in facilities among the 109 operated by TDCJ not only violate human rights standards, but also represent a violation of the Constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishments, according to the report. "Although persons who are incarcerated have been deprived of their right to liberty, these individuals still retain most of their fundamental human rights, most notably the rights to dignity, life, security of person, the right to be free of inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to health," reads the report.

Since 2007, at least 14 inmates have died from extreme heat exposure inside Texas prisons, most of whom were housed in newer prison units yet constructed without air conditioning in inmate living areas – in the most extreme case, the inmate's body temperature at time of death was nearly 110 degrees, according to a lawsuit filed against TDCJ in 2013 by the relatives of inmate Michael Martone. And in just a two-year period, during 2012-2013, nearly 150 correctional officers were also victims of heat-related injury or illness related to the extreme conditions, notes the HRC report. Still, TDCJ has taken no action to correct the problemĀ – save for installing air conditioning in warden offices and armory areas, according to the report and to court documents.

Indeed, TDCJ sets no limits on how hot a prisoner's cell can be, though the Texas Commission on Jail Standards,which oversees Texas' county jail operations has done so, setting an 85-degree temperature cap on inmate areas. The HRC is recommending that the TDCJ follow suit, codifying that inmate areas should remain between 65 and 85 degrees, and that air conditioning be installed to achieve that goal. Until that happens, the report recommends, in part, that inmates be screened for health conditions or medication usage that could exacerbate their susceptibility to heat-related illness or death, and that where inmates aren't living in climate-controlled areas that they be monitored frequently when indoor temperatures exceed 85 degrees.

TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said in an email that the "well being of staff and offenders is a top priority for the agency" and that TDCJ remains "committed to making sure that both are safe during the extreme heat." The agency ensures that additional water and ice is provided "if available" in both work and housing areas, restricts outside work during extreme heat, and works to identify offenders who might be susceptible to "heat related issues." He declined to answer specific questions or to provide additional details, citing the pending litigation.

The HRC Director Ariel Dulitzky said in a press release that it is TDCJ's duty to protect all of its inmates. "[B]ecause the TDCJ exercises complete control over prisoners in its facilities, it also bears the responsibility for guaranteeing the lives and health of all inmates." That is not happening, according to the report. Human rights standards require "The extreme heat in Texas prisons risks the lives of all inmates that are subject to these conditions, and this violates their physical integrity as well. The continuing lack of standards and preventive measures to address these risks increases the seriousness of the violations." The HRC said it will submit its findings to the United Nations and to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights.

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