Suit: Texas heat dangerous for elderly inmates

File Image. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
File Image. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

AUSTIN (AP) — Advocacy groups on Wednesday filed a federal lawsuit alleging that sick, elderly and disabled prisoners are being exposed to dangerous heat at an unair-conditioned Texas lockup.

The suit in a Houston-based federal court is on behalf of four inmates at the Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota, about 75 miles from Houston. All suffer from disabilities or medical conditions exacerbated by high temperatures.

It alleges that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is housing inmates in conditions that are inhumane enough to violate the U.S. Constitution’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

“I don’t know if I will make it this summer,” one of the prisoners bringing the suit, 69-year-old Marvin Yates, said in a statement.

Yates was convicted of driving while intoxicated and suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and high blood pressure. He added that at the Pack Unit “metal tables in the dorms are too hot to touch.”

The suit asks the court to compel officials to lower the heat index at the facility to a maximum 88 degrees.

Many prisons statewide don’t have air conditioning, and Brian McGiverin, an attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project, said 14 Texas prisoners had been killed by the heat since 2007 — sparking previous lawsuits. But McGiverin said many of those were wrongful death cases, not attempts to alleviate problems before things got worse.

McGiverin said Tuesday’s suit focuses on inmates in most critical situations, but that the ultimate aim is providing air conditioning at more Texas prisons.

“A lot of these prisons are in violation of the 8th Amendment,” he said. “If the state doesn’t take action to fix that, you can expect to see a lot more lawsuits like this one.”

The Texas Civil Rights Project filed the suit with the University of Texas School of Law’s Civil Rights Clinic and Edwards Law, an Austin-based legal advocacy firm.

Jason Clark, a Department of Criminal Justice spokesman, said he couldn’t comment on pending legislation. But he said officials try to minimize the effects of high temperatures by providing water and ice to prison staff and offenders, and limiting inmate activities during the hottest hours.

“Retrofitting facilities with air conditioning would be extremely expensive,” Clark said in a statement. “It should be noted that medical, psychiatric, and geriatric units are air conditioned.”

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