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Subjecting death row inmates to temperatures above 90 degrees during Florida’s summer months does not amount to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held. In a class action brought by more than 300 death row inmates at the Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit unanimously ruled that the heat index in the prisoners’ cells was not extreme enough to violate U.S. constitutional protections. Poor prison conditions only rise to the level of an Eighth Amendment violation when they “involve the wanton and unnecessary infliction of pain,” the 11th Circuit said in Jim Chandler v. James Crosby. Based on a two-part legal test established by the U.S. Supreme Court, an inmate seeking relief must prove that the condition poses a serious health threat and that the prison staff purposely created the harmful situation. Judge Gerald Tjoflat wrote for the panel. Judges Rosemary Barkett and Eugene Siler Jr. concurred. At Union Correctional, the visiting areas, prison library, infirmary and guard stations are air-conditioned. The death row cells, however, have an air circulation system but no fans or air conditioning. The inmates claimed that without air conditioning, the heat in their cells rose above 90 degrees during the summer, making their imprisonment unbearable. The inmates filed suit in August 2000 against James Crosby, the secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, and Bradley Carter, the warden of Union Correctional Institution. The lead plaintiff, Jim Chandler, began filing grievances about the heat with the prison warden in August 1999. The warden acknowledged the problem but denied the grievance, as did the state Bureau of Inmate Grievance Appeals. In March 2003, a federal district judge dismissed the inmates’ class action, saying that severe discomfort was not enough to prove an Eighth Amendment violation. The district judge noted a study by prison officials that the cell temperatures in July and August 1998 and July 1999 combined exceeded 95 degrees only seven times. Despite a few days of excessive heat, the district judge found that because the cells were made of concrete, the building usually maintained an average summer temperature of 85 degrees during the day and 80 degrees at night. The 11th Circuit upheld the district judge’s ruling that this did not amount to extreme heat. “While no one would call the summertime temperatures at the unit pleasant, the heat is not unconstitutionally excessive,” the court said.

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