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Advocates, Man Who Inspired Film ‘Bernie’ Ask for Air Conditioning for Him and Other Texas Inmates

Advocates, Man Who Inspired Film 'Bernie' Ask for Air Conditioning for Him and Other Texas Inmates

HOUSTON (AP) — A legal battle over a lack of air conditioning in Texas prisons is bringing together advocates on the issue and one current inmate who says his health is being endangered by the state’s hot prisons — the former mortician whose murder case inspired the movie “Bernie.”

Advocates for Texas prisoners on Monday asked to join a federal lawsuit filed last year by Bernie Tiede, who has alleged his life is in danger because he was being housed in a stifling prison cell without air conditioning. He was later moved to an air-conditioned cell.

Tiede, 65, who has diabetes and hypertension, alleges he continues to have serious health conditions after suffering something similar to a ministroke because of the extreme heat in his cell. Only about 30% of Texas’ 100 prison units are fully air conditioned, with the rest having partial or no air conditioning. Advocates allege temperatures often go past 120 degrees Fahrenheit (48.9 degrees Celsius) inside Texas prisons. Tiede is housed in the Estelle Unit, which has partial air conditioning.

Attorneys for several prisoners’ rights groups, including Texas Prisons Community Advocates and Lioness: Justice Impacted Women’s Alliance, filed a motion in federal court in Austin asking to join Tiede’s lawsuit and expand it so that it would impact all Texas prisoners.

The groups and Tiede are asking a federal judge to find that the Texas prison system’s current policies to deal with excessive heat are unconstitutional and require the prison system to maintain temperatures in its housing and occupied areas between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit (18 and 29 degrees Celsius).

“Bernie and the tens of thousands of inmates remain at risk of death due to heat related sickness and being subjected to this relentless, torturous condition,” Richard Linklater, who directed the 2011 dark comedy inspired by Tiede’s case, said during a virtual news conference Monday.

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Tiede is serving a sentence of 99 years to life for killing Marjorie Nugent, a wealthy widow, in Carthage. Prosecutors say Tiede gave himself lavish gifts using Nugent’s money before fatally shooting her in 1996 and then storing her body in a freezer for nine months.

Amanda Hernandez, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, or TDCJ, said her agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Hernandez said two recently created web pages highlight TDCJ’s efforts to install more air conditioning and explain the different measures the agency takes to lessen the effects of hot temperatures for inmates and employees. TDCJ said that includes providing fans and cooling towels and granting access to respite areas where inmates can go to cool down.

“Core to the mission of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is protecting the public, our employees, and the inmates in our custody,” according to the web page detailing air conditioning construction projects.

TDCJ has said there have been no heat-related deaths in the state’s prisons since 2012.

On Monday, advocacy groups pushed back against those claims, saying that increasingly hotter temperatures, including last summer’s heat wave, have likely resulted in prisoner deaths or contributed to them.

A November 2022 study by researchers at Brown, Boston and Harvard universities found that 13%, or 271, of the deaths that occurred in Texas prisons without universal air conditioning between 2001 and 2019 may be attributed to extreme heat during warm months.

“As summer approaches in our state, the threat of extreme heat once again appears, reminding us of the urgent need for action,” said Marci Marie Simmons, with Lioness: Justice Impacted Women’s Alliance, and who has endured the stifling prison heat as a former inmate.

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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