Is air conditioning a human right? According to a new lawsuit filed by prisoners in Texas against the state’s Department of Criminal Justice, it definitely is. And the prisoners have a point, considering that they claim high temperatures have killed at least a dozen prisoners over the past several years. The lawsuit alleges that the inmates’ constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment are being violated by the inordinately high temperatures.
The suit, which is being filed by the University of Texas School of Law Civil Rights clinic, along with the Texas Civil Rights Project, aims to bring more humane temperatures to inmates lodged in one of the hottest states in the nation. The federal lawsuit calls for prisons to maintain 88 degree Fahrenheit conditions.
Much of the lawsuit centers around the Wallace Pack Unit — a facility north of Houston that is home to almost 1,500 men. There is no air conditioning at all in the facility, and windows provide little airflow. According to internal data gathered by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which the suit cites, the temperature in the facility has gone over 100 degrees Fahrenheit more than once over the past three years. Texas Monthly states that the temperatures often get so high “that inmates have resorted to wrapping themselves in damp towels and lying on the concrete floors.”
Marvin Yates is one of the three plaintiffs in the suit. At 69-years-old, Yates suffers from hypertension and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. “I don’t know if I will make it this summer. The heat and humidity are so bad inside I have trouble breathing,” says Yates. There are certain air conditioned parts of the building, but they are largely limited to areas the inmates can rarely access, including administrative buildings, the visitation center, and the law library.
Since 1998, there have been 20 deaths that were either the result of over-heating, or the result of conditions being exacerbated by overheating, says the lawsuit. Rodney Adams, at 45 years of age, died one day after arriving to the prison — at the time of death, his internal temperature was recorded at 109.9 degrees Fahrenheit.
The temperature spikes are due, in part, to a loophole in legislation. County prisons are required by mandate to stay under 85 degrees Fahrenheit. However, there is no such law in place for state prisons. As a particularly uncomfortable point, the lawsuit points out that the hogs under the care of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice have better safety laws in place than prison men do — “TDCJ policy requires temperatures be kept no higher than 85 degrees to ensure ‘pig comfort,'” reads the suit.