Prison heat: Texas inmates testify about sleepless nights,fainting spells

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Two state prison inmates took the witness stand Monday to tell a federal judge about the hardships of living in a prison without air-conditioning – particularly for elderly inmates or those with medical conditions.

The testimony came as attorneys seek emergency relief for prisoners on cell blocks without air conditioning as part of a federal lawsuit challenging the state prison system for “cruel and unusual punishment.”

“It feels like being in a hot box in the summer,” said Jackie Brannum, 63, who fainted on the food line and had to be taken to the infirmary. “I get weak. I feel nauseated. I get headaches. It feels like the top of my head is going to blow off.”

Three other inmates, seated in the jury box in handcuffs and button up shirts, were expected to testify Monday about their experiences  with the summer heat.

The testimony this week is part of a class action by six inmates at the Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota, about 75 miles northwest of Houston, who say their lives are endangered by extreme summer heat in dormitories that don’t have cross-ventilation because the windows are sealed shut.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison previously found that the inmates needed a safer water supply because the well at Pack Unit had elevated levels of arsenic.

Twenty-two inmates have died from heat-related illness at the state prisons since 1998, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The majority of Texas state prisons do not have air-conditioning in the housing units.

The Pack inmates say the  ice water and fans provided by the prison aren’t enough to mitigate the heat. They douse their clothing in water before putting them on.

The first two inmate witnesses Monday had spent several months in air conditioned prisons – Richard King, 71, because he had a nerve damage that immobilized him, and Brannum, because he was in a psychiatric unit following a suicide attempt.

The hearing is expected to last into next week.

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