Advocacy groups say Texas inmates are 'being cooked to death' in state prisons without air conditioning

AUSTIN, Texas – A coalition of advocates has joined one of Texas' most famous inmates to sue the state over extreme temperatures in prison cells, arguing in federal court that inmates are "being cooked to death" and staff members are suffering heat-related injuries without air conditioning.

Bernhardt Tiede II – a former funeral director whose murder of a wealthy 81-year-old widow is chronicled in Richard Linklater's film "Bernie" – first filed the lawsuit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) in August 2023 after suffering an acute medical crisis in a cell that staff members had recorded reaching 112 degrees just days earlier. Tiede, 65, was transferred to an air-conditioned cell after a judge for the Western District of Texas granted two temporary restraining orders and one extension last year but has no guarantee that he will be housed in a cell with climate control again.

Monday's amended complaint, which expands the lawsuit to apply to inmates beyond Tiede, asks the U.S. District Court to declare the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's prison policy unconstitutional and order that Texas state prisons maintain temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees. Texas jails have been required to house prisoners at those temperatures since 1994, and federal prisons also strictly regulate temperatures.

"Let's ensure that no one else – inmates or corrections officers – suffers these inhumane conditions," Linklater said Monday at a news conference in support of the lawsuit.

According to the filing, almost 70% of TDCJ prisons lack air conditioning and units routinely reach 100 degrees or higher. A 2022 study by the JAMA Network found that "approximately 13% of deaths in Texas prisons during warm months between 2001 and 2019 may be attributable to extreme heat days."

See a full breakdown: Map shows at least 44 states lack universal air conditioning in their prisons

'We must appropriate the resources'

The complaint described inmates resorting to extreme measures to stay cool in sweltering conditions, including flooding their cells with toilet water and lying in it.

The Texas Legislature in 2023 allocated $85 million for TDCJ to install more air conditioning, but that money will not cover climate control in all prisons. Several bills aiming to mandate that TDCJ maintain its cells at a safe temperature range in recent years have failed.

Texas state Rep. Carl Sherman attributed the lack of legislation regulating prison temperatures to a lack of compassion.

"We had the resources with $32.7 billion in budget surplus," he said. "We just didn't have the will. ... If we're going to be true to our fidelity to the gospel, we must appropriate the resources."

Michele Deitch, a professor who runs the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas, added that the problem extends to staff members and suggested the lack of air conditioning contributes to Texas' struggle to fill vacancies at state prisons.

"It's not just incarcerated people who are suffering," she said. "Day after day, (staffers) have to work under unbearable conditions. ... Is it no wonder they don't want to work in those conditions?"

Advocacy groups that joined the lawsuit as plaintiffs Monday are Texas Prisons Community Advocates, Justice Impacted Women's Alliance, Texas Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, and the Coalition for Texans with Disabilities. TDCJ did not respond to the Austin American-Statesman, part of the USA TODAY Network, on Monday about the lawsuit and its efforts to improve heat conditions.

Civil rights attorney Jeff Edwards noted that he and other firms have been fighting TDCJ since 2011, after 10 inmates died of heat strokes over one summer, something that "takes an incredible amount of incompetence and indifference" to let happen, he said.

"This lawsuit is about fixing what should have been fixed years ago, truly decades ago," he said.

No air conditioning in many US prisons: Climate change, heat waves are making it 'torture'

Air conditioning in US prisons

With scientists and studies chronicling the intense impacts climate change is having in fueling hotter temperatures across the country, advocates for incarcerated people are sounding the alarm about sweltering conditions in U.S. prisons, where infrastructure is ill-equipped for a problem on track to worsen.

Advocates say the hot conditions in prisons may constitute "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

In 2022, USA TODAY reviewed media reports and public information from all 50 states and contacted corrections departments where information was unavailable. At that time, the results showed that at least 44 states don't universally air condition their prisons.

Only one state – Tennessee – said its prisons were fully air-conditioned. A handful of other states had nearly universal air conditioning or used other cooling methods to control the temperature in all areas of their facilities.

The same year, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice told USA TODAY that its policies to help mitigate heat in prisons include increased access to water and ice, fans, and cool "respite" areas prisoners can go to.

The department said many of the state's facilities were built before air conditioning was commonly installed, and prisons built in the '80s and '90s didn't have AC because of the cost to install and maintain it. The state has estimated it would cost $1 billion to convert facilities to include air conditioning, and another $140 million yearly for maintenance, though some advocates say those figures are overestimated.

Amanda Hernandez, a spokesperson for the department, said current measures within prisons are working, citing that there have been no deaths from heat this summer in its facilities. But 12 inmates "required medical care beyond first aid" due to a heat injury this summer as of late August, Hernandez added.

"Each summer, we continue to refine and improve our practices," Hernandez said. "What has not changed is our commitment to do all that we can to keep staff and inmates safe."

Contributing: Jeanine Santucci, USA TODAY

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Texas inmates are being cooked to death due to heat in prisons: Suit