The Modern Brazen Bull: The Eighth Amendment and Air Conditioning in American Prisons
Updated: Oct 18
On July 19, 2018 inmate Robert Robinson died from environmental hyperthermia, essentially receiving a death sentence for burglary. Mr. Robinson’s incident was not unique, it was one of 56 heat related illnesses suffered by Texas prisoners in 2018. This is not a new issue. In 2014, 900 Texas inmates filed a class action lawsuit in which the Texas Department of Criminal Justice settled, agreeing to provide air-conditioning in the housing units to maintain heat indices at or below 88 °F.
Texas is not alone in its failure to provide a humane environment for its incarcerated population. Numerous federal courts have ruled that the Eighth Amendment, specifically protects inmates against excessive heat, recognizing that exposure to prolonged extreme temperatures and humidity constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court has also ruled that this failure constitutes a violation of the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Therefore, the Eighth Amendment requires that inmates be held in conditions that do not deprive them of the “minimal civilized measures of life’s necessities.”
While the Constitution does not mandate comfortable prisons, it prohibits cruel ones. Though climate control was never specifically, or implicitly included in the original text of the Eighth Amendment, courts have interpreted it to mean that conditions of confinement must meet the “minimal civilized measures of life’s necessities” and conform to the evolving standards of decency. To evaluate if a prison’s conditions meet this requirement, the Supreme Court established a two-prong test. Conditions of confinement are unconstitutional if: (1) they present a substantial risk of harm to an inmate’s health, and (2) correctional officials acted with deliberate indifference to that substantial risk.
Under this two-prong test, to show that conditions are cruel and unusual punishment, the claimant must be able to demonstrate that the environmental conditions, either alone or in combination, objectively posed a substantial risk of harm, even if no harm has occurred to any member of the prison population at the time of the court filing. Additionally, deliberate indifference requires more than negligence. The prison officials must be aware of the facts inferring that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and they must disregard the risk. Subjective awareness may only be inferred if risk of harm is so obvious that the State officials are considered “on notice” of the danger. The Fifth Circuit established that heat and humidity in prisons can pose a substantial risk of harm, and that officials’ failure to take reasonable measures to control it can prove deliberate indifference to the obvious risks.
Texas’ Eighth Amendment case is not unique. Other States have come to similar conclusions regarding incarceration conditions. In Mississippi, a death row inmate sued the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC), claiming that the confinement’s combination of heat, humidity, and mosquitos subjected him to cruel and unusual punishment. The case centered on the question of whether the conditions on death row posed a substantial risk of harm to which the MDOC officials showed a deliberate indifference. The court found that it was very likely that under the challenged conditions, an inmate would die of heat stroke or some other heat-related illness. For this reason, the court ruled that forcing death inmates to spend the rest of their lives in hot, humid, and mosquito-infested cells fell below the minimal constitutional standards. Therefore, the MDOC officials’ subjective awareness could be inferred, meaning that their acts or omissions demonstrated deliberate indifference and cruel and unusual punishment.
Similarly, the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola was sued by three death row inmates, claiming that prison officials subjected them to excessive heat with deliberate indifference to their health and safety based on their specific disabilities. The distinction between this case and the Texas settlement is that all three Louisiana inmates took medications that made them more susceptible to heat-related illnesses, they also suffered from hypertension, and at least one had a chronic condition or illness. Additionally, two plaintiffs reported unexplained tingling sensations, swelling, and pain. One plaintiff experienced blood pressure spikes and was, according to his physician, “going to stroke out.” The court concluded that all of the death row inmates are consistently exposed to protracted, unbroken periods of high temperatures and heat indices that the National Weather Service categorizes as “caution, extreme caution, and danger zones.” The court also found that the second prong was established because the official’s knowledge of the risk could be inferred from its obviousness, showing deliberate indifference to the substantial risk of harm that the extreme heat posed.
In Texas’s case, a special sensitivity to the heat was not a factor. But Texas still violated the Eighth Amendment because the bar for unconstitutionality only requires that there is a substantial risk of serious harm not an actual incidence of injury. The substantial risk of heat related injury in the prison was well-documented and acknowledged by prison officials when they agreed to settle the suit. Because the State settled, it clearly possessed actual knowledge of the substantial risk of heat related injury to the prisoners. For this reason, Texas is still actively violating the Eighth Amendment as it continues to store inmates in temperatures that are likely to result in serious injury or death. Much like the conditions in Mississippi or Louisiana, the open and obvious nature of storing people in dangerously hot conditions supports the inference that TDOC officials acted with deliberate indifference.
Unlike the cases in Louisiana and Mississippi, the Texas case presents a unique question of liability for Texas officials’ failure to comply with the settlement agreement. While all three States violated the Constitution, TDCJ now faces the possibility of violating a court order as well. Under routine circumstances, public officials are entitled to qualified immunity when they are acting in their official capacity. However, this immunity can be overcome by demonstrating that (1) the official violated the inmate’s Constitutional rights, and (2) the defendant’s actions were objectively unreasonable in light of clearly established law at the time of the violation (components of a right are sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that his actions are violating a right). In the Texas case, officials voluntarily agreed to conform to the constitutional requirements, then failed to make any improvements. It is very likely that if the officials are sued in their individual capacity, they will not be protected by qualified immunity for violating the court’s order. They will be found to have been deliberately indifferent to the heat risks, and that their actions were not consistent with the reasonable standard of prison officials. For this reason, Texas officials may have to choose between upholding their prisoner’s Eighth Amendment rights, or joining them.