Wed June 18, 2014 4:23 pm By Annie Melton

[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.”

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Wed June 18, 2014 12:00 pm By Paul Burka

As I have written several times before, I am very concerned about the idea of a "surge" along the Texas-Mexico border. My main reason is this: It is a bad idea to have a paramilitary operation that includes a large number of private citizens. That is what is going to happen if there is a surge. There is going to be a horde of armed folks showing up with guns to play soldier. I can't think of a more dangerous situation. The border is a dangerous place to begin with. A surge only makes it worse.

Rick Perry should return to Texas and address this problem. A letter signed by state leaders in support of a surge is not a fix. An armed vigilante force is not a fix. A letter from the tea party is not a fix. I'm not sure that there is a fix, but this plan isn't it. There is no doubt that the situation on the border is serious. It is both a humanitarian and a demographic crisis. But it can't be fixed by politicians playing politics during an election season in an attempt to throw red meat to the base. That's not leadership--and the situation will suffer because of it.

(AP Image / Alicia A. Caldwell )

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Fri June 13, 2014 10:16 am By Paul Burka

I'm stunned that Rick Perry allowed himself to be drawn into a discussion of homosexuality in an appearance before the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, in the nation's most gay-friendly city. I thought he was far too seasoned a politician to make that kind of blunder. Apparently not. Here's what Perry said:

"I may have the genetic coding that I'm inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that. And I look at the homosexual issue in the same way."

Perhaps this should not come as a suprise because it reflects the thinking of the Texas Republican Party at large, which recently adopted a party platform that supports the legality of gay-conversion therapy. That platform reads, "We recognize the legitimacy and value of counseling which offers reparative therapy and treatment to patients who are seeking escape from the homosexual lifestyle. No laws or executive orders shall be imposed to limit or restrict access to this type of therapy."

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Wed June 11, 2014 5:45 pm By Paul Burka

All I can say is, "It's about time." The Davis campaign has been a disaster. Precious days have been lost. Even so, money keeps coming in. Davis will be well funded for the fall, but she needs a staff that is better prepared on state issues.

Democrats have already started describing the Republican slate as the "Abbott, Patrick, Paxton ticket." There is always a "be careful what you wish for" component to these races. Patrick in particular is a very shrewd operator who has widespread support from the conservative base. He is a dangerous opponent. Democrats who underestimate him do so at their peril.

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Tue June 10, 2014 10:32 am By Andrea Valdez

Yesterday, when we unveiled the cover of our July issue featuring Rick Perry, we also told you about "The Perry Report Card," an upcoming magazine feature where, as the title suggests, we graded the tenure of the governor on eight areas of public policy. We invited you to weigh in with your own grades for Perry on the subject of transparency and ethics. Under consideration today is his work on criminal justice. 

Perry is (in)famously tough on crime. He fully endorses the use of the ultimate punishment (when warranted), and to that end has signed off on more executions than any other governor in modern history. And his record on that is unlikely to be exceeded, because the number of death sentences issued in Texas has dropped sharply since 2005--when he signed a law giving juries the option of sentencing murderers to life without parole. And that's just one of the ways in which his record is more nuanced than one might think. At the end of this past legislative session, he signed the Michael Morton Act (which is designed to prevent wrongful criminal convictions) into law, and earlier this year, he also came out in favor of letting states choose if marijuana should be decriminalized in their communities. 

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