On July 30, when most of the state was sweltering under 100 degree temperatures, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued Blackmon v. Exiquio Garza, et al., reminding everyone that the only place to be that’s worse than outdoors during a sweltering Lone Star State summer is indoors in an unair-conditioned Texas prison.
According to the opinion, former Texas inmate Eugene Blackmon sued two prison officials in federal court in the Southern District of Texas, alleging they violated his Eighth Amendment rights. He claimed they did not take constitutionally adequate measures to address the extremely high temperatures in his prison dormitory during the summer of 2008, exposing him to substantial health risks. He was in his mid-60s and suffered from high blood pressure at the time.
However, before a jury reached a verdict, a trial court judge granted a directed verdict, concluding that Blackmon did not meet his burden of proof by demonstrating that the defendants were “deliberately indifferent to a substantial risk of harm to Blackmon.” Blackmon appealed.
The 5th Circuit reversed and remanded in a per curiam opinion, ruling that the evidence Blackmon presented in the case was sufficient; it included expert testimony about a heat index of 103 that summer in the Beeville prison and indicating that “when conditions in Blackmon’s dorm were in the extreme danger range, the risk of heat stroke was imminent.”
Vasu Behara (pictured), an associate with the Austin office of DLA Piper who has represented Blackmon since 2010 as part of his firm’s pro bono project, is pleased with the decision.
“We were glad to do it, and we’re very invested in the case,” Behara says, noting how difficult it is for prisoners to get their civil rights claims heard. “And I’m from South Texas, too. I know what the heat’s like.”
Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice declines to comment about the litigation but says “the agency strives to mitigate the impact of temperature extremes on offenders and staff. We are committed to make sure that all are safe, not only during the summer months, but also throughout the year.”
--- John Council