A former inmate claiming a Texas prison reached dangerously high temperatures without relief may sue the state, a federal judge ruled on Monday.
At its worst, the heat index inside the South Texas prison that held Eugene Blackmon soared to as high as 130 degrees, according to court documents.
The then-64-year-old inmate with hypertension contends that for much of the spring, summer and autumn of 2008, the prison was as hot inside as the air outdoors, bringing on bouts of headaches, nausea, blurred visions and other precursor symptoms of heat stroke.
"We lived in that torture for month after month," Blackmon told The Huffington Post. "You'll never be right after you live in heat like that."
Windows were sealed inside the Garza East Unit's dormitory and there was no air-conditioning, although documents show there was an industrial fan. Blackmon, who was incarcerated there for 16 months on a parole violation, alleged that inmates drank from dirty sinks to stay hydrated.
"Sometimes it was so hot in there we had to sit in our shorts all day and put wet towels on us," Blackmon said, adding that Wardens paid little attention to his complaints about the heat.
Blackmon was later transferred to a different facility to finish his three-year sentence.
The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that there was evidence "sufficient to allow a jury to conclude that [prison officials] were deliberately indifferent to significant risk to Blackmon's health."
By stating that exposure to extreme heat possibly violates the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment, the appeals court reversed a lower court decision which had dismissed the suit in February.
Prison officials did not keep measurements of the temperature inside the lockup, but a Tulane University professor used National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) records to calculate the temperature and heat index, which factors in humidity to determine how hot it actually feels. Professor James Balsamo concluded that in the period between July 1 and Sept. 15 the heat index was 103 degrees or higher every day. On 11 of those days, the prison was so hot that NOAA would classify the situation as one of "extreme danger."
The unrelenting heat often sent Blackmon to the infirmary. Although he claimed his already high blood pressure spiked, the lower court noted that medical records from the summer of 2008 didn't show "any significant increase."
The pressure is on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) from other inmates and their families. During last summer's heat, ten inmates around the state died from heat-related causes, The New York Times reported. The widow and daughter of one of the deceased inmates, Larry Gene McCollum, accused the state of causing his death after he had a seizure in an overheated jail outside Dallas.
The TDCJ maintains that it takes many steps to maintain a safe environment throughout its network of 111 prisons when the mercury rises. Officials allow extra showers, turn on fans and blowers and relax the dress code to permit inmates to wear shorts, a department spokesman told HuffPost in an email.
"While I can not specifically comment on the pending litigation, the agency strives to mitigate the impact of temperature extremes on offenders and staff," TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said. "We are committed to making sure all are safe not only during the summer months but throughout the year."
Yet conditions were so sweltering that when Blackmon brought the complaint in 2008, he said he believed his jailers had actually turned on heaters in order to torment inmates.
In addition to asking for compensation, Blackmon is suing to force prison officials to install proper ventilation and provide inmates with access to cold water. The case will be heard by a jury.
"The Constitution doesn't require [prison] to be comfortable, but it requires it to be safe and humane," said Scott Medlock, Blackmon's attorney and director of the Texas Civil Rights Project. "You just can't put people in temperatures that high. He's frankly lucky that nothing worse happened to him."
Never miss a thing. Sign up for up-to-the-minute breaking news alerts delivered straight to your inbox. Learn more