AUSTIN, Texas — Four scorching summers ago, convict Eugene Blackmon and dozens of other prisoners baked inside a South Texas prison, in temperatures that an expert later calculated at 134 degrees, Blackmon alleges in a lawsuit.
Last summer, Larry Gene McCollum, 58, who suffered from hypertension and weighed 345 pounds, died from hyperthermia at a state lockup outside Dallas. When medical personnel at a hospital measured his body temperature, it was 109.4 degrees — more than 5 degrees higher than the life-threatening level.
Perhaps as many as eight more convicts died from heat the same summer.
As the Lone Star State is settling into the hottest part of its triple-digit summer, lawyers, advocates and family members of prisoners say the state's practice of housing felons without air conditioning should end.
"Housing prisoners in high temperatures like this is brutal," said Scott Medlock, an Austin attorney who in late June filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Austin federal court over McCollum's death — the latest in an growing string of litigation on the issue.
"The Constitution doesn't require an air-conditioned prison, but it does require safe and humane conditions," Medlock said. "The newer prisons can be like a hotbox or an oven because where the windows are small and sealed Plexiglas, the air circulation is very minimal."
Prison officials say the issue is overblown, and they are taking all required precautions to ensure convicts in lockups that are not air-conditioned don't overheat.
But inmates, advocates and family members counter that even with those steps, the superheated conditions inside many of Texas' 111 state prisons violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment — as well as violating state and national prison standards.
About eight years ago, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ordered Mississippi prison officials to make changes after finding that state's prisons were sweatboxes — windows had been sealed shut, fans and cold water were unavailable and access to showers was not allowed.
Prison officials in nearby states say heat is an issue but not comparable to Texas, which experiences hotter, more humid days. Prisons in many states have better air-circulating equipment — even air conditioning — than Texas, advocates say.