Extreme Heat: A Violation of Human Rights in Texas Prisons

Posted by Jamie Milne on November 29, 2014

During a hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on October 27, 2014, advocates from the University of Texas School of Law’s Human Rights Clinic, joined by Brian McGiverin from the Texas Civil Rights Project, revealed the violation of the human rights of inmates in Texas prisons who are exposed to dangerously high temperatures during the summer months. The exposure to high temperatures creates inadequate living conditions that threaten the health of the inmates and violate their rights to health, life, and freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment.

A report released by the Clinic in April of this year, Deadly Heat in Texas Prisons, explains that exposure to high temperatures poses serious health risks for inmates. Since 2007, at least fourteen inmates in prisons managed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (“TDCJ”) have died from their exposure to extreme heat. Five of these inmates spent less than one week in TDCJ facilities before they died. The deaths have prompted domestic litigation by the families of the deceased and recently a case seeking class action status was filed claiming that the dangerous heat exposes prisoners to inhumane conditions that violate the U.S. Constitution. The TDCJ manages one hundred and nine facilities, which house over one hundred and fifty thousand inmates. These facilities lack air conditioning for the living areas of the general population.

The National Weather Service recognizes heat as one of the main weather-related killers in the United States. Prolonged exposure to high temperatures can result in heat stroke, heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, dehydration and death. In Texas, average summer temperatures are frequently over ninety degrees Fahrenheit (about thirty-two degrees Celsius) with humidity levels that can approach one hundred percent. These temperatures fall well within the zone of extreme danger as identified by the National Weather Service. While these temperatures pose a risk for the population at large, they are especially problematic in a prison context as inmates, who are under the State’s custody, are unable to control their environment and unable to take measures to mitigate the impacts of heat.

The Clinic’s report explains that States with similar climates to Texas have implemented measures to protect prisoners. For example, the Arkansas Department of Correction has implemented a mandate establishing seventy-eight degrees Fahrenheit (about twenty-six degrees Celsius) as the maximum temperature allowed in cells during the summer months. The New Mexico and Oklahoma Departments of Corrections have also adopted similar mandates.

While there is no international norm that defines acceptable temperatures for prison facilities, there is an understanding that exposure to high temperatures, without measures to mitigate the impact, are unacceptable. As explained in the Clinic’s report, domestic courts in the U.S. have held that the failure to implement such measures in locations that experience consistently high, dangerous temperatures can be classified as cruel and unusual punishment, which is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution. Similarly, the European Court of Human Rights has also held that exposure to high temperatures can constitute a violation of the prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The conditions in Texas prisons violate a number of human rights, including the right to health. As explained in the Clinic’s report, both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man specifically include a right to health as one of the fundamental rights of every person. The Human Rights Committee has also stated that States’ obligations under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”) include “the provision of adequate medical care during detention.” Through its commitments under the ICCPR and customary international law, as evinced by the UDHR, the United States has an obligation to respect the right to health, specifically in the context of prison inmates.

In a report of findings from a country visit to Azerbaijan, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health explained that “[t]he obligation to fulfill the right to health requires States to ensure access to the underlying determinants of health, such as food and nutrition, safe water and adequate sanitation and living conditions. Prisoners and detainees are at particular risk in this regard because they lack control over their environment and must rely exclusively on the State to ensure access to underlying determinants of health.”  Domestic U.S. cases attest to the fact that it is the State’s obligation to provide adequate living conditions for prisoners that do not create unnecessary risks to health (see Ramos v. Lamm). This is also echoed in Paragraph 10 of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which states that “[a]ll accommodation provided for the use of prisoners and in particular all sleeping accommodation shall meet all requirements of health, due regard being paid to climactic conditions and particularly to cubic content of air, minimum floor space, lighting, heating and ventilation.” The right to health, especially within the prison context, requires access to adequate living conditions and both domestic U.S. cases and international standards explain that living conditions must not pose unnecessary risks to inmate health in order to meet that requirement.

In the case of Texas prisons, the TDCJ fails to provide accommodation meeting the requirements under the right to health. The Clinic’s report explains that the routine exposure of inmates to temperatures within the “extreme danger” zone creates the risk of heat-related illnesses and can lead to death. As the TDCJ facilities lack air conditioning in the living areas, inmates are unable to escape these extreme temperatures and therefore face higher risks of these heat-related illnesses. The report explains that the TDCJ is aware of the risks posed to inmates and has failed to adopt any mitigating measures, such as ensuring adequate access to water and ice, providing appropriate seasonal clothing free of charge, and implementing screening to determine those most susceptible to heat-related illnesses.

The report from the University of Texas School of Law’s Human Rights Clinic, expresses a belief that the conditions in TDCJ facilities violate the right to health, the right to life, and the right to freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The Clinic is pursuing change by presenting their findings to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, submitting a shadow report to the Committee Against Torture, and contacting the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health and the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The goals for the advocacy are to support local initiatives, raise awareness with international organizations, promote a dialogue with the U.S. government, and encourage international human rights bodies to develop clear temperature standards for prison facilities.

Jamie Milne is a member of the Human Rights Clinic at The University of Texas School of Law