Judge threatens to bring the heat to Texas prison officials
A group of inmates accused the state of failing to honor an agreement to cool a prison that inmates said was oppressively hot
By Juan A. Lozano
HOUSTON — A federal judge threatened Friday to subject some Texas officials to the same hot temperatures prisoners have experienced after a group of inmates accused the state of failing to honor an agreement to cool a prison that inmates said was oppressively hot.
Attorneys for a group of inmates who had sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice allege state officials have continued to place "hundreds of men at substantial risk of serious harm" by failing to abide by the settlement. The lawyers say state prison officials have provided false information about broken air conditioners and temperatures inside prison facilities.
U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison said during a hearing that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice had "behaved dishonorably" by appearing not to abide by the the settlement and wondered what he could do to ensure prison officials provide safe conditions.
Ellison debated whether to impose financial sanctions as well as sanctions of a different sort.
"Shouldn't we have as a sanction, prison officials in the cells dealing with the same temperatures as the prisoners?" Ellison asked Leah O'Leary, a lawyer with the Texas Attorney General's Office, which represented the state's prison system.
O'Leary disagreed with Ellison's idea and said the state was working to fix the problems.
"You have our attention," said O'Leary, who spoke at the hearing by phone.
"I'm afraid I don't," Ellison replied.
Ellison delayed making a ruling on possible sanctions until he heard from officials, including prison wardens, at a hearing on Tuesday.
In 2018, Ellison approved a settlement over a lawsuit filed by a group of inmates who contended the oppressive heat at the Wallace Pack Unit, about 95 miles (153 kilometers) northwest of Houston, was unconstitutionally cruel punishment.
Ellison had previously said the nation's largest prison system was "deliberately indifferent" to the heat risks and subjected inmates at the Pack Unit to "a substantial risk of serious injury or death." He ordered the agency to come up with a plan to keep the heat index, the combination of temperature and humidity, no higher than 88 degrees (31.11 Celsius) at the Pack Unit.
The settlement impacted about 1,300 inmates at the Pack Unit, which got air conditioning and temperature monitoring equipment. Under the settlement, if any of these 1,300 inmates were transferred to other prisons, they would still be subject to the conditions of the settlement at their new facilities.
At Friday's hearing, Jeff Edwards, an attorney for the prisoners, accused state prison officials of failing to adequately fix problems at the Pack Unit and of not monitoring temperatures and fixing air conditioning problems at various prison facilities some of the 1,300 inmates have been moved to since the lawsuit was settled last year.
Inmates from the Pack Unit who had been transferred to the Stiles Unit in Southeast Texas reported in July that the air conditioning was not working and the heat made them feel "disoriented," ''nauseous" and like they were on the verge of "passing out," according to court documents filed this week.
"This is more than a mere compliance issue. This is a life and death issue," Edwards told the judge.
O'Leary said the state has taken steps to fix the problem, including moving most of the 1,300 inmates back to the Pack Unit. For those inmates who can't be moved back to the Pack Unit, O'Leary said the prison system has ordered that thermostats be installed in the housing areas of these inmates so that temperatures can be monitored.
Ellison said while the settlement only covers prisoners from the Pack Unit, he believes the Texas prison system should air condition all of its units.
Including Pack, Texas has 29 air-conditioned prisons. Another 75 are either partially cooled or have no cooling. During this year's legislative session, prison officials estimated it could cost about $1 billion to install air conditioning at prison units that don't have it.
Figures previously presented in court showed at least 22 Texas inmates have died of heat stroke since 1998, although none at the Pack Unit.