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Across the country, heat-related deaths in prisons are highlighting a pervasive problem: elderly inmates, and those using certain kinds of medications, are at high risk of overheating in uncooled prisons.
David Fathi is director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, and he's successfully challenged prison conditions in Wisconsin, Arizona and Mississippi.
Fathi tells Here & Now's Robin Young that extreme heat in some of the prisons in these states violated the Eight Amendment of the Constitution and exposed inmates to cruel and unusual punishment.
Interview Highlights: David Fathi
On how widespread the problem of prison overheating is
"It's hard to get exact statistics, because we have 51 separate prison systems and literally hundreds of jails in this country. But one thing I can tell you is it's becoming a bigger problem as the prison population ages and has more people with chronic medical conditions, more people on medications that make them heat sensitive, and as the weather is changing and we have hotter summers, at least in certain parts of the country."
On his own experience in overheated cells
"I was in the cells in the Wisconsin super-max ... I've also been, last July and August, in the Arizona state prison system, where we currently have a lawsuit ongoing that involves this issue. And it was absolutely unbearable, even for short periods of time, and I'm a person in reasonably good health. I don't have any particular risk factors for heat injury, but it was inconceivable to me that I could survive these conditions for more than a very short period of time. But prisoners in Arizona, of course, are exposed to these conditions for days and weeks at a time during the hot summer months."
On why he believes this is a constitutional issue
"Several courts have said that extreme heat violates the Constitution. The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and what the Supreme Court has said is that prisons can't expose prisoners to conditions that pose a substantial risk of serious harm. Prisons don't have to be comfortable, but they have to be safe, and they can't expose prisoners to an unreasonable risk of injury or death. And so several courts have already ruled that extreme heat does pose such a great risk, at least to some prisoners, that it violates the Eighth Amendment."
This segment aired on May 21, 2014.