Cruel and unusual weather

By Nancy Black

Photo courtesy of Prison Path

When it’s 98 degrees outside and you feel cool, you know you’re in Texas. I actually put on a sweater last Tuesday night because of the lovely chill in the air. It was 83 degrees at the time.

I do not do heat well. I’m not very good during extreme cold spells either. Call me a weather wimp if you must, but I truly have a very low tolerance for heat. I can’t walk more than 100 yards in 100-degree heat without looking and feeling like I am going to have a heat stroke. My face turns beet red and I sweat profusely.

It’s been 38 years ago this week since the record-breaking heat wave of 1980, when we had temperatures at 100 degrees or above for more than 42 days in a row, and 69 during the entire year. Living in Dallas that summer was like being cooked alive with Hansel and Gretel in the witch’s oven. It was beyond miserable. But the worse part was how irritable people became. That’s what long-term heat exposure does to even the nicest of people.

So why in the world would we create a penal system in Texas that houses some of the most dangerous members of our society in unairconditioned conditions? It seems like common sense that we, as a society, might not want to mix hardened, violent criminals with unbearably sweltering heat. That is a recipe for disaster, if you ask me. And the inmates agree.

After a four-year legal battle, Texas prisoners won a lawsuit in May against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Their suit asserted nearly two dozen prisoners near College Station died from heat stroke in the last two decades, and temperatures in their unit routinely exceeded 100 degrees.

According to the Texas Tribune, nearly 75 percent of all Texas prisons have uncooled inmate housing areas. The recent settlement agreement leads the way to permanently installed air conditioning at that prison. Civil rights activists are also pursuing future litigation at other Texas prisons.

In my opinion, housing prisoners in unairconditioned, poorly ventilated prisons during Texas summers violates the eighth amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” In the least, it’s inhumane and barbaric. But even if the public doesn’t have sympathy for criminals, practical considerations, such as avoiding lawsuits, heat related deaths and prison riots, beg for changes.

I’m not advocating for free ice cream and swimming pools for convicted criminals. But I do believe it would benefit our state to not have a bunch of angry souls cooped up in stifling, tight quarters during the hot summers in Texas. I think weather wimps and non-wimps alike can agree on that!

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