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Court Holds Temperatures on Florida's Death Row Constitutional; Class Action Exhaustion Explained

By David M. Reutter

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a Florida District Court's order denying that prisoners' cell temperatures on Florida's death row constitute cruel and unusual punishment. This civil rights action was filed by Jim E. Chandler and William Kelley, prisoners on death row at Union Correctional Institution's Northeast Unit (UCINU).

Shortly after the action was filed, the District Court on December 4, 2000, certified a class consisting of, all persons who are assigned to [U.C.I.N.U.] or who in the future will be assigned to that unit." After the court convened a bench trial, which included the court visiting UCINU, it denied relief on the merits. The prisons then appealed.
Before the Eleventh Circuit turned to the merits of the claim, it addressed the class exhausting their administrative remedies under the Prison Litigation and Reform Act (PLRA). The record shows that Chandler exhausted all three levels of the grievance process provided by the Florida Department of Corrections.

The Eleventh Circuit held that when one or more class members has exhausted his administrative remedies with respect to each claim raised by the class." The PLRA is satisfied because vicarious exhaustion" occurred.
UCINU was built in the early 1990's. It is home to over 300 death row prisoners. Its six wings of two floors are made of concrete. The twenty-eight cells on each wing are arranged back-to-back in rows of fourteen. Each cell front faces an outside wall that has two windows in front of it. Between the cell fronts and the wall is a bifurcated walkway. The outer walkway or secure catwalk," is immediately adjacent to the exterior walls. The inner walkway is immediately adjacent to the cell fronts. Bars separate the outer and inner walkways, which together are between eight and ten feet wide.

Between the backs of the cells is a pipe chase that contains plumbing, duct work, and electrical wiring. The chase accommodates two systems: the winter heating system and the summer ventilation system.
The heating vents are on the back wall of each cell about seven feet above the floor. Air enters the return vents, travels through the furnace, and re-enters the cells through the supply vents. During the summer, staff was running the air handlers" or in other words, running the furnace without heat. Prisoners then made air deflectors" to direct the air on them. Citing security reasons, guards forbid use of the deflectors. Then prison engineers recommended guards no longer activate the air handlers during the summer. Because Florida believes its prisoners should not live better than its poorest residents, its prisons are not air conditioned. Moreover, prisoners are prohibited from possessing personal fans and no fans are on the death row wings.
Instead, UCINU cools itself by cyclically exchanging the air with the outside environment. To do this, each cell has an exhaust vent four feet off the floor on the back wall. Air enters the prison through the two windows across from each cell, crosses the walkways, and enters the cell, and goes through the vent into the chase where it is exhausted by fans. This is the only system employed to provide relief from the stifling heat of a Florida summer. Basically, blowing hot outside air in and hot inside air back out.

To combat the suit, prison officials kept logs of the temperatures on all floors of UCINU. From those logs, the district court concluded that: (1) during eleven percent of July 1998, prisoners were subjected to temperatures higher than ninety degrees; (2) only fifteen percent of the temperatures for August 1998 were over ninety degrees; (3) only one percent of the temperatures for July 1999 were over ninety degrees; (4) on average, for the months of July and August 1998 and July 1999, prisoners only experienced temperatures over ninety degrees nine percent of the time; (5) temperatures over ninety-five degrees or higher were only recorded on seven occasions during the study period; and (6) no temperatures of 100 degrees or higher were recorded.

The Court said the temperatures and ventilation at UCINU are almost always consistent with reasonable levels of comfort and slight discomfort which are to be expected in a residential setting in Florida in a building that is not air conditioned.

The Eleventh circuit then discussed a plethora of cases by federal courts that have considered Eighth Amendment claims regarding heat and ventilation. The court then reached several conclusions.
First, the Eighth Amendment applies to prisoner's claims of inadequate cooling and ventilation. Cooling and ventilation are distinct prison conditions, and a prisoner may state a claim by alleging a deficiency as to either condition in isolation or both in combination. Second, the Eighth Amendment is concerned with both the severity" and the duration" of the prisoner's exposure to inadequate cooling and ventilation. Finally, a prisoner's mere discomfort, without more, is not a constitutional violation.

The Eleventh Circuit held the district courts conclusions of law and facts are correct in finding UCINU temperatures and ventilation constitutional. In affirming, the appellate court said it is sensitive to the prisoner's plight, but held that constitutional rights don't come and go with the weather." Death row prisoners and those in Florida confinement units will have to continue sweating out summer as a result of this decision. See: Chandler v. Crosby, 379 F.3d 1278 (11th Cir. 2004)

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Related legal case

Chandler v. Crosby

Keenan v. Hall, 83 F.3d 1083 (9th Cir.1996), involved a collection of § 1983 claims brought by an Oregon prisoner. Keenan alleged "that average temperatures in his cell 'tended' to be either 'well above' or 'well below' room temperature," id. at 1091, and that the prison's ventilation system was inadequate, id. at 1090. The court treated these claims separately. It affirmed the grant of summary judgment for the prison official as to the temperature claim, since the allegations in Keenan's complaint merely suggested "that the temperature was not comfortable." Id. at 1091. It reversed the grant of summary judgment as to the ventilation claim, however. Id. at 1090. In his complaint, Keenan alleged that his cell was "[s]aturated with the [f]umes of [f]eces (thrown by some inmates), the smell of urine and vomit as well as other stale bodily odors." Id. (marks omitted). The court noted that these conditions, if proved at trial, might violate the Ninth Circuit's rule that "[i]nadequate ventilation and air flow violates the Eighth Amendment if it undermines the health of inmates and the sanitation of the penitentiary." Id. (marks omitted).

In Lane v. Hutcheson, 794 F.Supp. 877 (E.D.Mo.1992), Lane, a Mississippi pretrial detainee, alleged that the lack of air conditioning at his jail violated his constitutional rights. [FN25] In denying this claim, the court stated,

FN25. The court noted that "[a] pretrial detainee is protected by the due process clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments rather than the Eighth Amendment," and considered Land's claims accordingly. Lane, 794 F.Supp. at 882.

There are large ventilation fans installed in the jail, which run constantly during hot weather. Plaintiff admits that the fans do offer some relief and that no one, including himself, has suffered any medical injury from the lack of air-conditioning. Plaintiff concedes that his complaints about the temperature in the jail (i.e. being hot) [are] based upon periodic measurements of the temperature in the jail by himself and other inmates using a thermometer; or visitors would report various outside temperatures to him and other inmates and they would calculate the "heat index". He further concedes that the only "injury" alleged is that the heat is at times "irritating" (in reference to emotional disposition). The Court finds that the ventilation system is adequate and that *1294 plaintiff's discomfort does not rise to the level of a constitutional violation.
Id. at 884 (citation omitted).

The district court in Inmates of Occoquan v. Barry, 717 F.Supp. 854 (D.D.C.1989), considered the prison condition claims of a class of inmates. In ordering broad relief for the prisoners, the court ruled,
Defendants must submit a proposal to the Court within 60 days on how to remedy the nonexistent ventilation system in most of the dorms. With the excessive numbers of inmates living in these open dormitories, a satisfactory plan must be devised to operate in both cold and hot weather. The current "natural" ventilation does not work in the cold months when windows are closed and the fans are turned off.
Id. at 867.

Brock v. Warren County, 713 F.Supp. 238 (E.D.Tenn.1989), was a suit brought by the children of a deceased Tennessee inmate. Brock resided in the county jail for a single week in July 1986. Id. at 240. The court found that (1) there was "a severe heat wave" at the time of Brock's incarceration; (2) Brock was confined in the jail's hottest cell; (3) the cell housed seven inmates; (4) the cell had no air conditioning or fans; (5) the cell had a steel door rather than bars, and "a pan hole which was used to pass food to the inmates ... was the only escape for air in the cell"; (6) the cell's only window, "approximately 18 by 24 inches in size, was located on the outside wall of the cell, and was covered by a steel plate during the time that ... Brock was incarcerated"; (7) the cell's ventilation system was not working; (8) there was a shower in the cell, and the inmates' frequent showers made the cell very humid; and (9) a thermometer in the adjoining hallway, which was cooler than the cell, "read as high as 110 degrees during the day and as high as 103 degrees to 104 degrees at night." Id. at 240-41. Brock became ill in the cell and died of consequences of heat stroke after being moved to a hospital. Id. at 241. The district court held that the prison officials violated Brock's Eighth Amendment rights. Id. at 242.

Informed by the Eighth Amendment caselaw, we reach several conclusions. First, the Eighth Amendment applies to prisoner claims of inadequate cooling and ventilation. Cooling and ventilation are distinct prison conditions, and a prisoner may state an Eighth Amendment claim by alleging a deficiency as to either condition in isolation or both in combination. Nonetheless, while distinct, cooling and ventilation are interrelated. Under certain factual scenarios, cooling and ventilation may be parts of a "seamless web for Eighth Amendment purposes." Wilson, 501 U.S. at 305, 111 S.Ct. at 2327. [FN26] The *1295 instant case is one such scenario. As the inmates state in their brief, "the essence of [their] claim is that the combination of harsh summer temperatures, high humidity, and inadequate ventilation have created unconstitutional conditions of confinement." We therefore consider all of these heat-related factors in reaching our judgment.

FN26. One common dictionary defines "ventilate" as "to provide (a room or other enclosed space) with fresh or cool air." Random House College Dictionary 1460 (Rev. ed.1980) (emphasis added). This disjunction illustrates that cooling and ventilation can be either relatively distinct (where a ventilation system merely introduces fresh air) or virtually indistinct (where a ventilation system introduces cool air).
Some cases have treated temperature and ventilation claims separately. See Dixon, 114 F.3d at 641 ("We affirm the grant of summary judgment [for the Illinois prison officials] on the inadequate ventilation claim, and reverse on the claim of extreme cold."); Keenan, 83 F.3d at 1090- 91 (affirming the district court's grant of summary judgment for the Oregon prison officials on the prisoner's temperature claim, but reversing the grant of summary judgment as to the inadequate ventilation claim). The facts of these two cases illustrate why a court might take this bifurcated approach. In Dixon, the prisoner complained that his cell was too cold and inadequately ventilated. In this scenario, ventilation does not impact much upon temperature; the ventilation system in Dixon likely did not compound the coldness of the cell. It is the reverse scenario--the one we deal with in the instant case, where a prisoner alleges excessive heat and inadequate ventilation--where a temperature claim and a ventilation claim are less easily distinguished. Keenan is a simpler matter: the prisoner could avoid summary judgment as to his ventilation claim because he pled sufficient facts (namely, that "the air was ... saturated with the fumes of feces, urine, and vomit," 83 F.3d at 1090), but he could not avoid it as to his temperature claim because he "alleged only that average temperatures in his cell 'tended' to be either 'well above' or 'well below' room temperature." Id. at 1091. Thus, a court might distinguish between temperature and ventilation claims at the summary judgment stage if the prisoner has alleged specific facts bearing upon one challenged condition but not the other.
We do not wish to overstate the distinction between cooling and ventilation. We suspect that in most excessive heat cases, like the one before us, these two conditions will be almost inseparable. We nonetheless wish to make clear that a prisoner may state an Eighth Amendment claim by alleging a deficiency in either ventilation or cooling or both.

Second, the Eighth Amendment is concerned with both the "severity" and the "duration" of the prisoner's exposure to inadequate cooling and ventilation. Cf. Dixon, 114 F.3d at 643 ("[I]t is not just the severity of the cold, but the duration of the condition, which determines whether the conditions of confinement are unconstitutional."). That is, "[a] condition which might not ordinarily violate the Eighth Amendment may nonetheless do so if it persists over an extended period of time." Id. Severity and duration do not necessarily form a perfect sliding scale, but our analysis should be informed by a consideration of both factors.

Third, a prisoner's mere discomfort, without more, does not offend the Eighth Amendment. See Woods, 51 F.3d at 581 ("While the temperature in extended lockdown may be uncomfortable, that alone cannot support a finding that the plaintiff was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment."). Eighth Amendment claims are governed by the standards we discuss at length in Part III.A, supra. In particular,
a prison official cannot be found liable under the Eighth Amendment for denying an inmate humane conditions of confinement unless the official knows of and disregards an excessive risk to inmate health or safety; the official must both be aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and he must also draw the inference.
Farmer, 511 U.S. at 837, 114 S.Ct. at 1979 (emphasis added).

Contrary to the inmates' assertions, the district court did not err when it recognized in its dispositive order that " 'severe discomfort' is insufficient to establish the objective component of an Eighth Amendment conditions of confinement claim." The "severe discomfort" language comes from our decision in Chandler v. Baird, 926 F.2d 1057 (11th Cir.1991). In that case, Chandler alleged, among other things, that his Eighth Amendment rights were violated by
confinement in a cold cell with no clothes except undershorts and with a plastic-covered mattress without bedding; filth on the cell's floor and walls; deprivation of toilet paper for three days; deprivation of running water for two days; lack of soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, and linen; *1296 and the earlier occupancy of the cell by an inmate afflicted with an HIV virus. The averments of a cold cell were supplemented by specifics: that the temperature was as low as 60 degrees, that it was "ice cold", that [Chandler] slept on the floor and on occasion huddled with a roommate, sleeping between two mattresses.
Id. at 1063. The district court determined that the jailer was entitled to qualified immunity and granted him summary judgment. Id. at 1064. We reversed. Id. at 1066. After surveying the Eighth Amendment cases dealing with excessive cold claims, we decided that Chandler was
entitled to have the trier of fact determine whether the conditions of his administrative confinement, principally with regard to the cell temperature and the provision of hygiene items, violated the minimal standards required by the Eighth Amendment. We also conclude[d], although the district court did not reach the issue, that the right of a prisoner not to be confined in a cell at so low a temperature as to cause severe discomfort and in conditions lacking basic sanitation was well established in 1986. The defendants therefore were not entitled to summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity.
Id. at 1065-66.

We do not find Chandler to be controlling here. First, the Chandler court, in rendering its judgment on qualified immunity, was concerned entirely with the law related to excessive cold claims; the court had no opportunity to treat an excessive heat or inadequate ventilation claim. Second, the Chandler court did not have the benefit of the Supreme Court's rulings in Wilson, Hudson, Helling, or Farmer. It was in these cases that the Court refined the Eighth Amendment framework that governs our present cases. See supra Part III.A.

The Chandler court did have the benefit of Estelle and Rhodes, but these foundational cases did not fully establish the current Eighth Amendment framework. Estelle held "that deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes" an Eighth Amendment violation. 429 U.S. at 104, 97 S.Ct. at 291. This ruling was landmark but limited. Indeed, the Rhodes Court, writing nearly five years after Estelle, stated,
until this case, we have not considered a disputed contention that the conditions of confinement at a particular prison constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Nor have we had an occasion to consider specifically the principles relevant to assessing claims that conditions of confinement violate the Eighth Amendment.
452 U.S. at 345, 101 S.Ct. at 2398 (footnote omitted). Rhodes applies more broadly to all conditions of confinement. See supra Part III.A. Nonetheless, it was not until after Chandler that the Supreme Court clearly delineated the objective and subjective components of Eighth Amendment claims. See Wilson, 501 U.S. at 303, 111 S.Ct. at 2327 (adopting a "deliberate indifference" standard for the subjective component); Farmer, 511 U.S. at 847, 114 S.Ct. at 1984 (holding that a prison official is deliberately indifferent "if he knows that inmates face a substantial risk of serious harm and disregards that risk by failing to take reasonable measures to abate it"). Furthermore, it was not until after Chandler that the Supreme Court held that a prisoner "states a cause of action under the Eighth Amendment by alleging that [prison officials] have, with deliberate indifference, exposed him to [a condition] that pose[s] an unreasonable risk of serious damage to his future health." Helling, 509 U.S. at 35, 113 S.Ct. at 2481 (emphasis added).

*1297 The "severe discomfort" language from Chandler appears to be an anomaly in our jurisprudence. A quick Lexis search reveals that, after Chandler, we never again used that phrase in deciding an Eighth Amendment challenge. We have routinely used language found in the Supreme Court's post-Chandler cases, however. See, e.g., Marsh v. Butler County, 268 F.3d 1014, 1028 (11th Cir.2001) ("A prison official's deliberate indifference to a known, substantial risk of serious harm to an inmate violates the Eighth Amendment." (citing Helling, 509 U.S. at 32-33, 113 S.Ct. at 2480)); Bass, 170 F.3d at 1317 ("Wantonness has been defined as 'deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm to a prisoner.' " (quoting Farmer, 511 U.S. at 836, 114 S.Ct. at 1978)). In the end, the Supreme Court's holdings, rather than the obsolete and potentially irrelevant phraseology of Chandler, must govern our analysis.

We recognize that Eighth Amendment claims have objective and subjective components. See supra Part III.A. Nonetheless, we need not consider the subjective component in this case, because we conclude that the inmates at the Unit have failed to meet their burden under the objective component. [FN27] Cf. Helling, 509 U.S. at 35, 113 S.Ct. at 2481-82 ("We ... affirm the remand to the District Court to provide an opportunity for [the inmate] to prove his allegations, which will require him to prove both the subjective and objective elements necessary to prove an Eighth Amendment violation. The District Court will have the usual authority to control the order of proof, and if there is a failure of proof on the first element that it chooses to consider, it would not be an abuse of discretion to give judgment for petitioners without taking further evidence."); Sims v. Mashburn, 25 F.3d 980, 984 (11th Cir.1994) (expressing "serious doubt about whether" the prisoner satisfied the objective component, but nonetheless "choos[ing] to predicate [the] holding on the failure of proof as to [the subjective] component"). We reach this conclusion for the following reasons.

FN27. The district court held that the inmates failed to satisfy either the objective or subjective component.

First, while no one would call the summertime temperatures at the Unit pleasant, the heat is not unconstitutionally excessive. The district court found that "the building mass remains at a relatively constant temperature, between approximately eighty degrees at night to approximately eighty-five or eighty-six degrees during the day." The cells were sometimes hotter than this, but not often. According to the district court's dispositive order, "[o]n average, inmates on the ... Unit may have experienced temperatures over ninety degrees nine percent of the time during the months of July and August 1998 and July of 1999." During those same months, "the temperature was recorded at ninety-five degrees or higher on only seven occasions," and "there were no readings ... that exceeded 100 degrees." At the hottest times of the day, it is cooler in the cells than it is outdoors. In light of these facts, we agree with the district court's finding that "the temperatures and ventilation on the ... Unit during the summer months are almost always consistent with reasonable levels of comfort and slight discomfort which are to be expected in a residential setting in Florida in a building that is not air-conditioned." [FN28]

FN28. The inmates do not appear to challenge the district court's failure to consider other temperature data, e.g., outdoor weather service temperature measurements, in reaching its judgment. In any case, the district court's dispositive order makes clear that the court was wary of using outdoor temperature measures as a proxy for Unit cell temperatures. The court rejected the testimony of one of the inmates' experts, Dr. Francis Dukes-Dobos, in part because his conclusions "were based on the erroneous assumptions that the inside temperatures on the ... Unit mirror the outside temperatures and that the outdoor temperatures in Gainesville, as recorded by the national weather bureau, were identical to those on the ... Unit for the same time period."

*1298 Second, the Unit is equipped with a ventilation system that effectively manages air circulation and humidity. The system is designed to provide nearly sixty air changes per hour, while typical systems of its kind are designed to provide only thirty or forty. The district court found that "[w]hen the ventilation system is running per design, the relative humidity in the building rarely rises above seventy percent, the humidity level needed to support the growth of mold and mildew[, and] heat, odors and contaminants are exhausted out of the building." The ventilation system appears to be "operating within the range of design parameters." [FN29]

FN29. See supra note 15 and accompanying text.
The use of air handlers increases the air temperature and is, according to Dougherty's testimony, inefficient. See supra note 8 and accompanying text.

Third, apart from the ventilation system, numerous conditions at the Unit alleviate rather than exacerbate the heat. The cells are not exposed to any direct sunlight because, as the district court found, "the attic acts as a buffer between the solar heat and the second floor cells of the ... Unit by absorbing the solar radiation." The inmates are not required to wear many clothes, and most wear only shorts in the summer months. The district court determined that "every cell has a sink with hot and cold running water, and every inmate possesses a drinking cup." The inmates are generally sedentary; they may, but need not, exercise twice per week, and as far as the record discloses, they are not compelled to perform prison labor. Furthermore, the inmates have some limited opportunities to gain relief in air-conditioned areas, e.g., during visitation time. See supra Part I.B.

We are sensitive to the inmates' plight, and we recognize that "constitutional rights don't come and go with the weather." Henderson v. DeRobertis, 940 F.2d 1055, 1059 (7th Cir.1991). But "extreme deprivations are required to make out a conditions-of-confinement claim" under the Eighth Amendment. Hudson, 503 U.S. at 9, 112 S.Ct. at 1000 (emphasis added). Under the standards we apply, we cannot say that the prisoners at the Unit have cleared this high bar.

The judgment of the district court is accordingly


379 F.3d 1278, 17 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. C 891