A group of Texas inmates in Texas is suing the state prison system, the nation’s largest, arguing that extreme heat is killing older and infirm convicts. The inmates allege it constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” and they’re asking the courts for relief, NPR reports. The six plaintiffs are doing time in the Wallace Pack Unit, located in the humid pasturelands between Austin and Houston. Daily measurements taken by the National Weather Service show that since the beginning of this summer, the peak heat index has averaged 104 degrees. That’s outside where you might catch a breeze. Inside, inmates say the poorly ventilated, steel and concrete cellblocks are like ovens.
“A lot of times it gets so hot in our dorms that we have to strip down to our boxers, and we’ll just lay on the floor because it’s a little bit cooler on the floor than it is trying to sit up in our bunks,” says plaintiff Keith Cole, 62, who is serving life for murder. “We try to stay in front of our fans. But in reality, there’s really not too much that we can really do in our living areas to alleviate the heat.” He says he has heart disease, diabetes and hypertension, and there are lots of older prisoners like him in the Pack Unit. “My age, with the medical conditions that I have, the medications that I’m on, extreme heat can kill me,” he says. “So, it’s not a comfort issue with me. It has nothing to do with that. This is a serious medical issue.” Since 1998, 20 inmates have died from heatstroke or hyperthermia in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, according to plaintiffs’ lawyers. It’s likely that more heat-related deaths occur in prison, but inmates say the cause of death is often listed as heart attack. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is deciding whether to certify all the inmates in the Pack Unit as part of a class action challenging extreme heat in their living quarters.