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Lawsuit filed to end extreme heat conditions in Texas prisions

Texas Prisons Community Advocates (TPCA) joined forces with state Rep. Carl Sherman (D-DeSoto) in a press conference on Monday concerning the bipartisan effort to sue the State of Texas for “inhumane temperatures” in state prisons.

“We have the resources,” stated Sherman, “we just seem to lack the compassion to address this issue.”

Sherman introduced House Bill (HB) 1355 in January 2023, which mandates that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) ensure indoor prison facility temperatures are maintained between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, in accordance with a 1994 Texas Administrative Code requirement. Co-sponsors of HB 1355 included bipartisan support from Reps. Alma Allen (D-Houston), Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood), Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg), and Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano). 

However, the bill died in the Calendars Committee without being referred to the House floor.

Seven months later, 65-year-old convicted felon Bernhardt Tiede II filed a lawsuit against the TDCJ due to suffering acute emergency stroke symptoms in his cell, where triple-digit temperatures had been previously recorded.

Tiede, a former mortician, gained notoriety for his murder of 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent in 1964. The murder case gained prominence after its portrayal in the 2011 film “Bernie,” sparking heated discussions about Tiede’s crime and the Texas legal system’s handling of the case. Tiede was imprisoned in 1997 with a life sentence.

“There’s just no escape,” Tiede said of the temperature in his cell to the Austin-American Statesman, adding how the heat affects his fellow inmates: “You can’t speak to people when they’re hot and uncomfortable.” Following his lawsuit, Tiede was moved to an air-conditioned cell in Huntsville with no guarantees of any particular prison housing.

On Monday, the lawsuit complaint was amended to extend the 1994 ethical air conditioning requirement to all prisoners. Various advocacy groups joined Tiede as plaintiffs, including the TPCA, Justice Impacted Women’s Alliance, Texas Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, and Coalition for Texans with Disabilities.

During the virtual press conference on Monday, Sherman addressed the attendees, “Our animal shelters are required by law to have A/C … and there is no animal that the Word of God says was made in the image of God,” he stated. “And yet, we have more than two-thirds approximately of our citizens incarcerated in housing conditions that have inhumane temperatures … rising above 140 degrees, according to Texas A&M.”

An affected family member with TPCA shared her husband’s experience in prison, expressing that while the phrase “do the crime, pay the time” applies to these sentenced citizens, “they weren’t sentenced to death, they weren’t sentenced to torture.”

Marcie Marie, formerly incarcerated in 2011 for stealing $367,000 and now a social media influencer and the community outreach coordinator with Justice Impacted Women’s Alliance, emphasized, “We’re not talking about making incarcerated Texans comfortable, we’re talking about bringing the temperatures down to safe levels of under 85 degrees Fahrenheit.”

“I remember lying on the concrete floor in my cell,” Marie described, “pouring water over me, trying to cool off.”

The amended lawsuit complaint asserts that the TDCJ is denying incarcerated Texans the fundamental right to air conditioning. “The current policy is incompatible with basic standards of decency,” it reads. “In short, the policy violates the Eighth Amendment.”

The legal complaint quotes Congressman Greg Casar (D-TX-35), stating, “Being in a 115-degree prison is the definition of cruel and unusual punishment.”

“We don’t want one more person to die or become sick this summer from extreme heat; it is unconscionable,” concluded plaintiffs’ attorney Jodi Cole at the conference. “We will be pursuing this, and we’re grateful for everyone else who has joined our efforts.”

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