Is air conditioning a constitutional right?

A recent federal lawsuit is once again examining whether prisons without air conditioning violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Summers in the Southern United States are hot.  This past June was the hottest one on record in the contiguous United States.  Record high temperatures of around 120 degrees have proven fatal.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky once said that, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”  Yet despite record-setting heat waves in multiple states, many prisons are not only overcrowded, they are not air-conditioned.

“This isn’t about comfort.  This is about life or death.”

Mercedes Montagnes is a lawyer representing three death row inmates housed in a Louisiana prison without air conditioning.  She has recently filed a lawsuit arguing civil rights violations by the state for this shortcoming.  “It’s almost impossible for courts to deny the constitutional violation because extreme heat undoubtedly exposes individuals to substantial risks of serious harm,” she said.

Keith Cole is a 62-year old inmate who is serving a life sentence in Texas for a 1995 murder conviction.  Cole is a plaintiff in a separate, but similar, lawsuit than the one filed by Ms. Montagnes.  Mr. Cole, who suffers from heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension, says that air conditioning is vital to his survival.  “Air conditioning to me wouldn’t be a comfort.  It’s a necessity – a medical necessity,” he told the New York Times.  He said that he understands how the public could be skeptical of such a claim.  Prior to his own conviction, he said he might have been just as skeptical.  But he insisted, “This isn’t about comfort.  This is about life or death.  Once these building heat up in the summertime, they never really do ever [sic] cool back down again.”

State officials have responded to calls for reform with a pragmatic concern: money.  In Mr. Cole’s case, it will cost the State of Texas over $22 million just to install air conditioning at his prison alone.  Additionally, this one installation would require nearly half a million dollars in annual operating costs.

[P]risons across the state were so hot in the summer heat that stainless steel tables within the facilities became hot to the touch.

This is not the first time prisoners have sued for the right to have air conditioning.  In mid-2014, the Texas Civil Rights Project and the University of Texas School of Law Civil Rights Clinic filed a federal lawsuit arguing cruel and unusual punishment, claiming that summer temperatures over a three-year period were consistently in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  They argued that even prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have air conditioning.  The suit alleged that prisons across the state were so hot in the summer heat that stainless steel tables within the facilities became hot to the touch and that “prisoners have to lay towels down on the table to rest their elbows while sitting.”

The Texas suit was brought on behalf of 12 prisoners who died from extreme heat exposure between 2011 and 2014.  It included all Texas state prisons, but focused primarily on Wallace Pack Unit located in Navasota, Texas, about 70 miles Northwest of Houston.  The suit alleged that nearly 20 heat-related deaths had occurred since 1998.  One inmate, 45-year-old Rodney Adams, had an internal temperature of 109.9 when he died.

As with the Louisiana lawsuit, the Texas lawsuit alleged that several inmates in the state’s facilities are elderly and/or have underlying medical conditions that make them particularly susceptible to the heat.  One inmate, 69-year old Marvin Yates, said that because of his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and hypertension, he did not know if he would survive another summer.  “The heat and humidity are so bad inside, I have trouble breathing,” he said.

While there is air conditioning in certain areas of prisons such as Wallace Pack, such as the law library, education building, and visitation center, the inmates have little access to these areas.  The suit also pointed out that while the inmates are sweating in their housing units, the warden’s office and other administration buildings were air conditioned.  Additionally, county jails have air conditioning because, according to Texas statutes at the time of the suit, jails must be kept between 65 and 85 degrees.  However, the state systems had no such mandate at the time.

“It’s 120 degrees in Iraq and the soldiers are living in tents and they didn’t commit any crimes, so shut your mouths.”

This is not a new issue.  Perhaps one of the most well-known sweatbox prisons is the infamous “Tent City” of Maricopa County, AZ.  The brainchild of the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is now in his sixth term as sheriff, Tent City was created in an effort to save taxpayer money by avoiding the expense of building new jail facilities while still expanding housing capacity.  Temperatures in Tent City frequently reach highs of nearly 130 degrees, but Sheriff Arpaio takes no pity on the inmates.  “It’s 120 degrees in Iraq and the soldiers are living in tents and they didn’t commit any crimes, so shut your mouths,” he has told inmates.

Sheriff Arpaio has been sued numerous times for a laundry list of civil rights violations during his near-quarter century tenure, but he has thus far managed to avoid any serious repercussions.  However, it appears that Tent City is or will be closing due to mounting pressure, legal battles, and protests.

“[The] Constitution does not mandate comfortable prisons…”

The cases currently being litigated could possibly take several years to resolve.  A judge in Baton Rouge, La. ruled in Ms. Montagnes’s favor a few years ago, but the actual resolution to the problem is still being argued at the appellate level.  For example, one solution offered by officials is what is called a “Cajun cooler”.  This contraption “essentially consists of a combination of an ice chest, a fan, and a duct that emits cool air.”

Some are asking why this issue is even still an issue and why it has been drawn out for so long.  Jeffrey Edwards, a lawyer for Mr. Cole, told the New York Times, “In the South, almost everybody has air-conditioning.  This isn’t a luxury anymore.  Almost everyone has it, except for these inmates.”

The answer may lie in the United States Supreme Court’s 1981 decision in Rhodes v. Chapman, a class action suit that originated in Ohio.  In Rhodes, the plaintiffs argued that Ohio’s practice of “double-celling”, or forcing two inmates to share a cell intended to house only one inmate, was cruel and unusual and violated the Eighth Amendment.  Writing for the majority, Justice Powell said that “conditions of confinement must not involve the wanton and unnecessary infliction of pain, or be grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime warranting imprisonment.”  But, the Court held, conditions that are not cruel and unusual are not unconstitutional.  “To the extent such conditions are restrictive and even harsh, they are part of the penalty that criminals pay for their offenses against society… [The] Constitution does not mandate comfortable prisons…,” wrote Justice Powell.

However, until the Supreme Court specifically addresses the issue of air conditioning, there will likely continue to be a patchwork of rulings regarding whether a lack of it during the summertime heat is a violation of the Constitution.

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About Clint Davis, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus (17 Articles)
Clint Davis is a 2017 Campbell Law graduate and served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Campbell Law Observer for the 2016-2017 academic year. Before law school, Clint served as a police officer for seven and a half years in Williamston, N.C. He graduated from the University of Mount Olive in the Spring of 2013 with a degree in Criminal Justice and Criminology. During his time at Campbell, Clint studied abroad at the University of Cambridge (UK) with a focus on the law of the European Union and comparative data privacy. He worked for the Honorable Wanda G. Bryant at the North Carolina Court of Appeals, the Honorable Seth Edwards at the Martin County District Attorney's Office, the Honorable Susan Doyle at the Johnston County District Attorney's Office, and the Honorable Lorrin Freeman at the Wake County District Attorney's Office. Clint also competed on Campbell's National Moot Court Team and served as an associate justice for the Campbell Law Honor Court.
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