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Judge Declines to Terminate Orders Requiring Air-conditioned Housing for Heat-sensitive Prisoners

New York U.S. District Court Judge Harold Baer, Jr. has declined to terminate a series of orders requiring New York City jail officials to house “heat-sensitive” prisoners in air-conditioned cells when temperatures reach 85 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.

Since 1978, New York City jails have operated under a consent decree entered as part of a class-action suit on behalf of all pre-trial detainees. The consent decree regulates various conditions in the jails such as hot and cold temperature extremes, sanitation, ventilation and lighting.

In 2006 and 2007, Judge Baer entered orders requiring jail officials to move heat-sensitive prisoners to air-conditioned areas when outside temperatures reach 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Intra-jail transfers to air-conditioned areas must be accomplished within two hours, or within eight hours for transfers to other facilities. Heat-sensitive prisoners in punitive segregation do not need to be moved to air-conditioned housing if doing so would jeopardize security or safety. However, such prisoners must be given extra water and ice at each meal, and monitored closely for possible medical attention.

Noncompliance with the court’s heat orders comes at a cost. Jail officials must pay heat-sensitive prisoners $20 per hour, increasing to $50 per hour after twenty-four hours and $100 per hour after forty-eight hours, if they are housed in an area that is 85 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter.

A prisoner is considered heat-sensitive if he or she receives lithium, has Parkinson’s disease, requires infirmary care, is sixty-five years old or older, has a documented history of hospitalization for heatstroke, receives one or more identified drugs that raise the risk of heat-related illness, suffers from Type I or Type II diabetes and is sixty years old or older, appears confused, has dementia, suicidal tendencies, depression or mental disability, or has a history of congestive heart failure or heart attacks.

The defendants moved to terminate the court’s heat orders in early 2008, arguing they were in substantial compliance. Judge Baer disagreed, finding that jail officials had failed to transfer heat-sensitive prisoners to air-conditioned housing in a timely matter and had failed to reliably provide ice and water to heat-sensitive prisoners held in punitive segregation.

For example, a September 2007 report by the Office of Compliance Consultants (OCC) found a 52% compliance rate by jail officials with respect to 253 heat-sensitive prisoners. The OCC “concluded that, although ‘inmates in general spent less time in non air-conditioned areas than those monitored in previous years,’ the transfer of heat-sensitive inmates to air-conditioned locations remained a ‘major’ obstacle.” A follow-up report by the OCC found only 32% compliance with another group of 129 prisoners. Accordingly, the district court denied the defendants’ motion to terminate the heat orders.

On June 30, 2009, Judge Baer suspended the automatic stay provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act with respect to the court’s heat orders “for good cause shown,” until the end of September 2009. See: Benjamin v. Horn, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:75-cv-03073-HB; 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46809.

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Related legal case

Benjamin v. Horn