Texas Summers Might Be Cruel and Unusual Punishment

By Robyn Hagan Cain on August 06, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Summer heat waves are hardly surprising, even if they make headlines annually.

Each year, there are heart-breaking tales about children dying in cars, and elderly people suffering without air conditioners. But they're not the only ones hurting as temperatures rise. Last week, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that prisoners also bear the brunt of the summer heat.

Now, taxpayers could bear the burden of cooling prisoners if a jury finds that Texas prison temperatures rise to the level of cruel and unusual punishment.

Eugene Blackmon filed a civil rights lawsuit against Texas prison personnel, alleging violations of his Eighth Amendment rights while he was jailed at a Beeville, Texas facility. According to Blackmon, the wardens did not take constitutionally-adequate measures to address the extremely high temperatures in his dormitory during the summer of 2008, exposing him to substantial health risks. Specifically, he said that the prison dorm where he was housed was extremely hot and lacked adequate ventilation, water, showers, and fans.

Blackmon claimed that he was particularly susceptible to the effects of the heat because, during the relevant time of his confinement, he was 63- to 64-years-old, and took prescription medication for pre-existing high blood pressure.

The district court granted judgment as a matter of law in the defendants' favor, finding that Blackmon didn't meet his burden of proving that prison officials were deliberately indifferent to a substantial risk of harm to him. Last week, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded that decision in an unpublished opinion.

We know that a prison doesn't have to provide posh accommodations, but where do courts draw the line between uncomfortable and "cruel and unusual"?

The Supreme Court says that prison officials "must provide humane conditions of confinement; prison officials must ensure that inmates receive adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, and must take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of the inmates."

For an Eighth Amendment rights challenge to have to teeth, a prisoner must show that the official's act or omission was objectively serious, (i.e. the act "results in the denial of the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities), and the prison official had a sufficiently culpable state of mind, (i.e. deliberate indifference). Here, the Fifth Circuit concluded that Blackmon set out sufficient evidence at trial to allow a reasonable jury to find that the conditions of confinement met the threshold for objective seriousness and deliberate indifference.

Blackmon will get a shot at a trial, but he's not guaranteed a win. Frankly, we can't fathom a Texas jury finding for Blackmon, but The New York Times reports that Texas prisoners have actually died from the oppressive heat. What do you think? Is that enough to sway a Texas jury?

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