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Court: Air conditioning not necessary in hot prison

In a ruling that could have implications for similar lawsuits in Texas, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that Louisiana doesn’t have to install air conditioning to protect death row inmates from extreme summer heat.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said a district judge overstepped his authority when he ordered Louisiana prison officials to keep the heat index below 88 degrees — effectively ordering them to install air conditioning in a unit where temperatures topped 100 degrees seven times during a three-week period in summer 2013.

However, the appeals court ruling explicitly stated that extreme temperatures in prison cells can violate the Eighth Amendment’s restriction on cruel and unusual punishment.

“The Constitution does not mandate comfortable prisons, but neither does it permit inhumane ones,” Judge Edith Jones wrote for the three-judge appellate panel.

What’s more, the federal court said inmates don’t need to show that hot temperatures caused death or serious injuries to prove that prison conditions are unconstitutional.

“They need only show that there is a substantial risk of serious harm,” Jones wrote.

The ruling by the 5th Circuit, which also has jurisdiction over Texas, could prove important for similar legal challenges in the Lone Star State — particularly a lawsuit scheduled to go to trial in February that claims at least 12 Texas prisoners have died from heat stroke since 2011, while hundreds of others experienced heat-related illnesses.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of seven inmates in the Wallace Pack Unit, a medical and geriatric prison about five miles south of Navasota in Grimes County.

According to the lawsuit, temperatures routinely top 100 degrees in the unit’s housing areas, “threatening the health and welfare of all inmates living there, especially the elderly, sick and disabled.”

Jeff Edwards, an Austin lawyer who filed the lawsuit, said a hearing will be held this fall on whether to grant class-action status allowing the lawsuit to represent all inmates in the Pack Unit.

“That way, at least everyone at the Pack Unit — hopefully — would be protected from hot temperatures,” Edwards said. “As a consequence, our hope is the Texas Department of Criminal Justice would read the writing on the wall and adopt more systemwide measures” to cool prisons statewide.

The state prison agency has argued that it takes adequate precautions to protect inmates from extreme heat, including allowing prisoners to have fans, wear shorts, take frequent water breaks and take additional showers when feasible. In addition, outside activity is restricted and ice is provided if available.

Air conditioning would be an unnecessary and expensive solution, prison officials say.

Wednesday’s appeals court decision said Louisiana prisons could avoid heat-related cruel and unusual punishment by cooling common areas and supplying personal ice containers and ample cold water, as well as by providing many of the solutions used in Texas prisons.

The 2013 order by Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson to provide air conditioning was “unnecessary to correct the Eighth Amendment violation,” Jones wrote.

Inmates “can only obtain a remedy that reduces the risk of harm to a socially acceptable level,” she wrote. “Some risk is permissible and perhaps unavoidable.”

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