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Report highlights prisoners dying from human rights abuses in Texas prisons

Human Rights Clinic report finds conditions in TDCJ prisons violate 'human rights of its inmates'

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The University of Texas School of Law Human Rights Clinic has claimed in a new report that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice allegedly continues to violate human rights of inmates in its facilities.

The clinic's report, called "Deadly Heat in Texas Prisons," said inmates are subjected to heat so extreme that at least 14 have died as a result since 2007. These conditions have not only caused those deaths, but also pose a continuing threat to existing and future prisoners.

The Human Rights Clinic finds in its report that conditions in TDCJ prisons violate the human rights of its inmates.

Ariel Dulitzky, the director of the clinic, stressed that "because the TDCJ exercises complete control over prisoners in its facilities, it also bears the responsibility for guaranteeing the lives and health of all inmates." The TDCJ fails to live up to this responsibility, according to the clinic.

Dulitzky said that the TDCJ has been aware that inmates have died from extreme heat since at least 1998, and it has been more than two years since the Texas Civil Rights Project brought a wrongful death lawsuit against the TDCJ for the death of an inmate due to organ failure resulting from exposure to extreme heat.

Dulitzky said in spite of this increased public scrutiny, the TDCJ has yet to address the issue by implementing proper measures to ensure the health of inmates.

The TDCJ -- which administers state-run prisons -- sets no limit for how hot a prisoner's cell can be, according to the report. TDCJ has cooling procedures for the swine stables it owns, but it does not have adequate cooling procedures for prisoners' cells. This is in stark contrast to the Texas Commission of Jail Standards, which regulates and monitors county jails and has temperature standards for living quarters.

A number of decisions -- both from the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the district courts under its jurisdiction -- have found that extreme heat in prisons violate the Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Dulitzky noted that "more lawsuits are pending not only for wrongful death but for the ongoing risks that these extreme temperatures pose to inmates."

The Human Rights Clinic said it recommends administrative and legislative solutions. The clinic encourages the TDCJ to immediately begin monitoring inmates who are at a heightened risk for heat-related injury, and ensure that all prisoners have access to ice and cool water.

In the report, the clinic also recommends that the TDCJ codify that temperatures in inmate housing areas remain between 65°F and 85°F, and install air conditioning in all of its facilities to achieve this.

Because of the serious human rights violations detailed in the report, the Human Rights Clinic said it intends to submit its findings to relevant United Nations bodies, as well as to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice released the following statement to KSAT-12 about the report:

"The well-being of staff and offenders is a top priority for the agency, and we remain committed to making sure that both are safe during the extreme heat.

"TDCJ takes precautions to help reduce heat-related illnesses such as providing water and ice to staff and offenders in work and housing areas, restricting offender activity during the hottest parts of the day, and training staff to identify those with heat-related illnesses and refer them to medical staff for treatment.

"Although a detailed cost analysis has not been done, retrofitting facilities with air conditioning would be extremely expensive. It should be noted that medical, psychiatric, and geriatric units are air conditioned.

"Below are some systemwide protocols that units utilize during extreme heat.

--Provide additional water; ice is provided if available in the work and housing areas

--Restrict outside activity (work hours) in accordance with agency policy

--Ensure all staff and offenders working in areas of extreme heat (e.g., field, maintenance, yard squad) are provided frequent water breaks

--Transport offenders during the coolest hours of the day

--Screen outgoing offenders to ensure the selected mode of transportation is appropriate

--Load and unload transfer vehicles as quickly as possible

--Refill water coolers on buses at various times during the trip to maintain water at appropriate temperature

--When utilizing fans, air is drawn through the structure and exhausted outside, taking full advantage of the fresh air exchange system or prevailing winds to assist in the movement of air, as applicable

--Increase airflow by utilizing blowers, when appropriate, normally used to move hot air in the winter; attach ribbons to vents to ensure blowers are being used appropriately

--Allow additional showers for offenders when feasible

--Allow offenders to wear shorts in dayrooms and recreational areas

--All custody levels are allowed fans.

--Train employees and offenders so they are aware of the signs and treatment for heat-related illnesses

--TDCJ staff and medical providers work closely together to identify offenders susceptible to heat related issues. A list of identified offenders is provided to housing officers who conduct frequent wellness checks on the offenders.

"The agency strives to mitigate the impact of temperature extremes.

"Again, TDCJ is committed to making sure that offenders and staff are safe during the extreme heat."