[Editor's note: starting this afternoon, we're going to have occasional posts on BurkaBlog from our talented summer interns, including the author of this post, Annie Melton. --EG]
Temperatures are rising, and so is the pressure on Brad Livingston, the executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Earlier today he was named as a defendant in a federal lawsuit filed by the Texas Civil Rights Project, Edwards Law, and the University of Texas School of Law’s Civil Rights Clinic on behalf of elderly and disabled inmates serving time in TDCJ’s Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota.
The lawsuit raises an issue that I covered in more detail last month: Because TDCJ units are not air-conditioned, they can become a harmful environment for inmates who are unable to escape the heat during Texas’s grueling summers. Pack’s metal walls and stainless steel tables can become so hot to the touch that inmates have resorted to wrapping themselves in damp towels and lying on the concrete floors.
The problem is not a new one, but the issue has gained more attention in recent months. The lawsuit filed today comes in the wake of an April report from UT’s Civil Rights Clinic on the subject, several previous wrongful death lawsuits filed on behalf of the families of inmates who died from heat-related illnesses, and complaints from correctional officers who work long shifts in the same stifling conditions.
TDCJ has yet to announce any reforms in response, though, and at a press conference this morning announcing the lawsuit, attorneys were angry as they pointed this out.
“It has become painfully clear that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and its leadership — Brad Livingston, [TDCJ medical director] Lanette Linthicum — is perfectly content to wait out the storm,” said Jeff Edwards, lead counsel on the lawsuit. “That’s not acceptable.”
The lawsuit filed today is the first filed on behalf of inmates currently living in the prison, rather than on behalf of the families of inmates who have died. According to the lawsuit, because of Pack’s status as a geriatric unit, it houses a large population of elderly and disabled inmates who are particularly susceptible to the heat — yet despite filing grievances and seeking treatment from medical staff, they have found little relief. All of that being the case, the lawsuit argues that forcing inmates to live in such extreme heat amounts violates the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments, as well as, in the case of disabled prisoners, the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The plaintiffs represented are David Bailey, who suffers from asthma, hypertension, and symptoms from a traumatic brain injury that are similar to Parkinson’s disease; Marvin Yates, who suffers from hypertension and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; Keith Cole, who suffers from diabetes and hypertension; and Nicholas Diaz, who was born with scoliosis and Morquio Syndrome and uses a wheelchair.
“I don’t know if I will make it this summer,” said Yates, who is 69 years old, in a statement. “The heat and humidity are so bad inside I have trouble breathing.”
In addition to Livingston, the defendants named were Roberto Herrera, the warden of the unit in question, and TDCJ itself. In the past, Livingston has said that temps inside TDCJ units can rise to match those of the outdoors, and that no policy exists to address conditions in the dorms where inmates spend the majority of their time.
Attorneys today scoffed at this response. According to state law, the lawsuit notes, the executive director of TDCJ is responsible for protecting the constitutional rights of people held in custody. And as Edwards added, even Guantanamo has air-conditioning.
“TDCJ knows,” Edwards said. “Extreme heat presents a risk of serious and substantial injury to elderly inmates.” He continued: “And either they don’t care, or they don’t think the citizens of Texas care. This case is about telling them, once and for all, that we all care, that we all have an obligation and a duty to protect people.”