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Many Texas prisons don't have air conditioning. This lawsuit seeks to change that.

Austin Price for KUT
A coalition of lawyers and advocacy groups, along with convicted murderer Bernie Tiede, are suing to force the state to install air conditioning in its prisons.

Bernie Tiede, arguably Texas’ most famous living convicted murderer, is leading a lawsuit to force the state to air condition its prisons.

County jails in Texas must be kept between 65 and 85 degrees, but state prisons don’t have to be air conditioned. That amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, according to Tiede and a coalition of lawyers and advocacy groups.

Their expanded lawsuit, announced Monday, accuses prison leaders of hiding evidence that inmates have died due to the extreme heat and demands the AC be installed in the dozens of state-run prisons that currently lack it.

Tiede, a mortician whose murder of an 81-year-old widow was immortalized in Richard Linklater’s dark comedy “Bernie,” was moved to a cell with AC last year after he sued the state in federal court.

This legal challenge expands on his previous suit. The advocacy groups on the amended complaint include Texas Prisons Community Advocates, Build Up, Inc., Texas Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants and the Coalition for Texans with Disabilities.

“Letting people suffer or die in prisons because of dangerous temperatures disregards our basic humanity,” Dean William, a former leader of the Colorado and Alaska prison systems, said in a press release released Monday.

State law does not require prisons to have AC. As of summer 2022, just 31 of the 100 state-run lockups had air conditioning in all prisoner housing areas. Temperatures inside the state’s non-air conditioned units averaged well over 85 degrees last June, according to state data. Some reached as high as 106 degrees that month.

Tiede is currently serving his 99-year murder sentence at the Estelle Unit in Huntsville.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has defended its protocols for extreme heat, which include providing prisoners with extra water and access to cool “respite” areas. The agency says no one has died from the heat since 2012.

Spokesperson Amanda Hernandez said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. She said two new webpages were recently launched on "enhanced heat protocols" and tracking the construction of 13,714 additional air conditioned inmate beds in state prisons.

"Core to the mission of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is protecting the public, our employees, and the inmates in our custody," Hernandez said.

This isn’t the first time Jeff Edwards, the suit’s lead attorney, has sued the state over the heat inside prisons. In 2018, the state agreed to install AC at a prison for elderly and medically vulnerable inmates after Edwards led a coalition of inmates who sued over the conditions.

The AC cost less than $4 million to install — a fraction of the original estimated cost and cheaper than the $7.3 million the state spent to fight that lawsuit.

State lawmakers have waffled over whether to cool state prisons. Last year, the Texas House passed a bipartisan prison heat bill, but the legislation failed in the Senate. And while budget writers included some funding in for prison “deferred maintenance” projects in the state’s most recent budget, they did not require it to be used for AC.

Copyright 2024 KUT News. To see more, visit KUT News.

Lauren McGaughy