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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

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To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

Texas Prisoners Sue Over 'Cruel' Conditions, Citing Extreme Heat

The Wallace Pack Unit, Texas
The Wallace Pack Unit, Texas
A group of inmates in Texas is suing the state prison system, the nation's largest, arguing that extreme heat is killing older and infirm convicts. The inmates allege it constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment" and they're asking the courts for relief.

The six plaintiffs are doing time in the Wallace Pack Unit, located in the humid pasturelands between Austin and Houston. Daily measurements taken by the National Weather Service show that since the beginning of this summer, the peak heat index has averaged 104 degrees [40°C]. That's outside where you might catch a breeze. Inside, inmates say the poorly ventilated, steel and concrete cellblocks are like ovens.

"A lot of times it gets so hot in our dorms that we have to strip down to our boxers, and we'll just lay on the floor because it's a little bit cooler on the floor than it is trying to sit up in our bunks," says plaintiff Keith Cole, 62, who is serving life for murder. "We try to stay in front of our fans. But in reality, there's really not too much that we can really do in our living areas to alleviate the heat."

Cole talks from behind a wire screen in the visitors room. He says he has heart disease, diabetes and hypertension, and there are lots of older prisoners like him in the Pack Unit.

"My age, with the medical conditions that I have, the medications that I'm on, extreme heat can kill me," he says. "So, it's not a comfort issue with me. It has nothing to do with that. This is a serious medical issue."

Autopsies reveal that since 1998, 20 inmates have died from heatstroke or hyperthermia in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, according to plaintiffs' lawyers. Ten of the victims died in the brutal summer of 2011. It's likely that more heat-related deaths occur in prison, but inmates say the cause of death is often listed as heart attack.

The lawsuit is slowly making its way through the federal courts. At present, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans is deciding whether to certify all the inmates in the Pack Unit as part of a class action challenging extreme heat in their living quarters.

Lawyers point out that Texas county jails and federal prisons are cooled, so why not state prisons?

"All of the people that tend to die are the sickest and the most fragile among the inmates," says lead counsel Jeff Edwards. "What makes what's going on reprehensible is that the department knows this. We're asking the court to force the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to reduce the temperatures to a safe and livable amount."

In Texas, the issue is not whether inmates are suffering but what kind of remedy is appropriate. Prison officials have balked at installing air-conditioning equipment in the 79 prisons that don't currently have it. They say the Pack Unit alone would cost $22 million to retrofit.

Prison officials acknowledge that summer heat is extremely dangerous and note that 30 units are already air-conditioned. Moreover, they say that all of the system's medical, psychiatric and geriatric units, as well as solitary confinement, have chilled air.


Source: npr, John Burnett, September 12, 2016

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