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Is No AC in Prison Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on April 07, 2015 11:53 AM

The Human Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law released a report last week detailing the deaths of 14 inmates in the last eight years due to "[t]he extreme, suffocating heat in Texas prisons." The report, entitled "Reckless Indifference: Deadly Heat in Texas Prisons," concluded "[i]nmates and guards at TDCJ prisons are regularly subjected to extremely high temperatures and humidity levels resulting from Texas summertime conditions and the lack of air conditioning and adequate ventilation in TDCJ facilities."

Do these deaths constitute cruel and unusual punishment? And should jails be required to provide air conditioning for prisoners during extreme heat?

Eighth Amendment Protections

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

That's the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. What punishment actually rises to the level of cruel and unusual has been difficult to define. The death penalty, for example, was determined to be cruel and unusual in 1972, before changes in sentencing guidelines permitted its reinstatement in 1976.

While the Supreme Court has ruled that certain prisoner treatment violates the Eighth Amendment (like disciplining an inmate by handcuffing him to a post without a shirt and exposed to the sun for seven hours without water), those cases have generally been confined to excessive punishments, rather than daily prison conditions.

It's Not the Heat ...

The Texas report also cited the lack of proper medical care for overheated inmates as a possible Eighth Amendment violation:

In Estelle v. Gamble, the Supreme Court of the United States stated that failure to provide medical care constitutes a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment if correctional officers or their designees have demonstrated a deliberate indifference to a prisoner's serious medical needs. Such indifference can be manifested by "prison guards in intentionally denying or delaying access to medical care or intentionally interfering with the treatment once prescribed." TDCJ guards' demonstrated lack of care for inmates with heat-sensitive medical conditions could constitute this deliberate indifference, making them liable under the Eighth Amendment.

While the report calls for immediate reforms and possible intervention from the federal Department of Justice, but it remains unclear what response, if any, will follow.

This is not the first time prison heat has become an issue, even in Texas, but courts have yet to force prisons to provide inmates with air conditioning. Texas prisons have also come under fire after an inmate revolt in February of this year.

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