Inmates forced to lie in toilet water to stay cool, suit says. ‘Third world conditions’

Several organizations have joined a Texas inmate’s lawsuit alleging the prison he is incarcerated in is keeping inmates in unsafe temperatures, causing sickness and death.

Bernhardt Tiede filed the federal lawsuit against Bryan Collier, the executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, in August 2023, detailing extreme heat conditions in the Estelle Unit in Huntsville, Texas.

McClatchy News reached out to Collier’s attorney for comment but did not immediately hear back.

On April 22, a motion was granted allowing Texas Prisons Community Advocates, Build Up, Inc., Texas Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants and Coalition for Texans with Disabilities, Inc. to join the lawsuit.

The amended complaint, filed the same day, says the inmates are being exposed to extreme heat because of a lack of air conditioning in the housing units.

“We’re not trying to make this lush, we’re trying to make it humane. These are third world conditions. We’re supposed to run prisons, not concentration camps,” former head of the Correctional Officers Union Lancy Lowry said, according to the lawsuit.

The housing units reach 100 degrees or higher during the summer months, the lawsuit said. In some cases, temperatures have reached 149 degrees.

“To simply survive, people housed in Texas prisons have had to flood their toilets and lie down in the water on the cell floor to try to cool their bodies,” the lawsuit said.

Between 2001 and 2019, 271 people died in prison due to extreme heat exposure, according to the lawsuit.

“Federal prison regulations similarly require temperatures in occupied areas to be set at between 68 to 76 degrees, so that even maximum-security federal prisons in hot climates like Texas, such as USP Beaumont and even prisons housing terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have air conditioning,” the lawsuit said.

However, the court document said Texas prisons do not have these same requirements.

“The overwhelming majority of prisons (roughly 70%) in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (“TDCJ”) system lacks air conditioning in the inmate housing units. As a result, approximately 85,000 of the roughly 130,000 TDCJ inmates currently lack air conditioning in their living areas,” the lawsuit said.

Tiede is 65 years old and lives with diabetes and hypertension. Last summer, Tiede was hospitalized after he suffered an “acute medical crisis and likely Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA) as a result of being housed in a cell known to reach temperatures of 112 degrees,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit said after being hospitalized, Tiede was returned to the same “oven-like cell” where he previously suffered from paralysis, an ear infection and had to use a walker.

Tiede was moved to a cooler cell during the summer, when the court granted him a temporary restraining order, but the lawsuit said the court ruling allows the prison to move him back to a “non-cool” cell at its discretion.

The lawsuit said corrections officers have also suffered from the extreme heat in Texas prisons. Each summer, employees experience “headaches, and collapse from heat exhaustion,” the court document said.

“An employee at one prison said the heat was so intense that his work clothes were often soaked through with sweat, and that he had witnessed a colleague being taken away in an ambulance last summer,” the lawsuit said.

In Texas, there are laws that protect dogs and other animals from being exposed to extremely high temperatures, but not prisoners, the lawsuit said.

A representative for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice told McClatchy News it does not comment on pending litigation.

The agency has recently created an online dashboard “dedicated to publicly track air-conditioning construction progress” after acquiring $85 million, the representative said. A heat protocol site was also created to explain efforts the agency is taking to tackle the effects of hot temperatures.

The amended complaint is asking a judge to determine the current Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s heat policy “constitutionally inadequate” and for all facilities’ housing units to be kept between 65 to 85 degrees.

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