HOUSTON (CN) – Texas prison officials have been deliberately indifferent to the hazards of sweltering summer heat in a lockup near Houston, a federal judge ruled, ordering the state to reduce the temperature in inmate housing areas to 88 degrees Fahrenheit.
Over the past two decades, 23 Texas inmates have died from heat-related illness, but the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has never seriously considered installing air conditioning in prisons that were not built with air conditioning, maintaining that it would be too expensive, according to court records and testimony.
The Wallace Pack Unit is a minimum-security prison in Navasota, 70 miles northwest of Houston. It is one of 109 state prisons in Texas. It houses about 1,450 male inmates serving sentences for nonviolent crimes, many of whom are disabled, sick and elderly, and take drugs that make them more susceptible to heat stroke.
Seven Pack Unit inmates sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, its former executive director Brad Livingston and Pack Unit Warden Roberto Herrera in June 2014, seeking class certification and an injunction forcing prison officials to “maintain a heat index of 88 degrees or lower inside each of the Pack Unit’s housing areas.”
U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison certified a class action of all current and future Pack Unit inmates in June 2016 and two subclasses for disabled and heat-sensitive prisoners.
Finding that measures Texas has taken to mitigate the risk of heat stroke for inmates in the Pack Unit, where the heat index is often more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, Ellison issued a preliminary injunction Wednesday, ordering Texas to lower the heat index in housing areas for heat-sensitive inmates to no more than 88 degrees.
But Ellison stopped short of ordering Texas to install air conditioning in Pack Unit inmates’ dorms. Rather, he urged prison officials to better utilize air-conditioned areas in the prison.
The prison’s infirmary, library and classrooms, barbershop, hallways, officer dining room and administrative offices are air conditioned.
“Defendants may reconfigure areas that are currently air conditioned to accommodate the heat sensitive, or move them to other facilities in Texas,” the 101-page order states.
Texas argued in hearings that a respite program it implemented in 2015, in which inmates can ask guards at any time for access to one of the prison’s air-conditioned areas and stay as long as they want to cool down, has been key in reducing the number of heat-related illnesses.
No heat deaths have been reported at the Pack Unit and the latest year that Texas inmates succumbed to excess heat was 2012, when two prisoners died.
But Ellison found the Pack Unit’s respite areas aren’t big enough to accommodate many prisoners and that both the prison staff and inmates are unaware of, or confused about, the rules for respite areas.
Plaintiff Richard King, 71, suffers from high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity, and takes two medications that interfere with his body’s ability to cool down, according to the case record.
He has been incarcerated at the Pack Unit for six years. He testified that in the summer he finds it hard to function, as he sweats profusely, becomes lethargic and loses his appetite.
“Additionally, it is difficult for him to write letters because sweat drips all over his paper, and when he lies down, sweat pools in his eyes. He finds that it is often cooler to lie on the concrete floors than in his bunk, because the personal fan that he owns blows hot air and does not have a cooling effect,” the ruling states.
A viral infection damaged King’s nerves in 2010 and made it difficult for him to walk.
He testified that he once sought respite and was sent to the barbershop, but it was full. He was moved to a hallway where he was told to stand facing the wall. The hallway leads to an area where inmates are held in solitary confinement and when inmates are taken to or from those cells, the hallway has to be cleared, the case record shows.
King testified that 10 minutes after he got to the hallway he was told to leave while guards moved an inmate from solitary confinement. He has trouble standing so he opted to return to his cell after 30 minutes of cooling down in respite areas.
Another plaintiff, Michael Denton, testified that he doesn’t use respite areas because of a policy that anyone seeking refuge from the heat in the Pack Unit’s infirmary must submit to a test to measure their core body temperature that is administered by placing a thermometer in their rectum.
Alongside the respite program, Texas implemented “wellness checks” in which every 30 minutes correctional officers are supposed to check on inmates who are on a “heat-restriction list.”
But King, who is on the list, testified that officers don’t do anything differently for wellness checks than they do for routine security checks.
“King stated that, if an inmate is awake, correctional officers ‘just walk on past’ without stopping. If an inmate is asleep, the officer will wake him up and ask, ‘Are you alive?’” according to the ruling.
Texas cited the Fifth Circuit’s 2015 order in Ball v. LeBlanc to defend its efforts to mitigate extreme heat for Pack Unit prisoners. In Ball, several Louisiana death-row prisoners alleged excessive summer heat violated their constitutional rights.
A federal judge issued an injunction ordering Louisiana to maintain the heat index in death-row housing to 88 degrees.
But the New Orleans-based appeals court tossed the injunction as too broad, and suggested the narrower remedies of access to air-conditioned areas, daily cold showers, plentiful cold drinking water with ice and use of personal fans, because the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which governs prisoner civil rights claims, requires federal judges to tailor remedies to do nothing more than eliminate the constitutional violation.
But Ellison found the Fifth Circuit’s Ball ruling did not foreclose air conditioning.
“Implicit in the Fifth Circuit’s holding is that, if those measures were subsequently found to be insufficient to rectify the constitutional violation, other remedies, such as air conditioning, would be appropriate,” Ellison, an appointee of former President Bill Clinton, wrote.
Ellison granted the heat-sensitive class a preliminary injunction, finding they are likely to succeed on their claims that the Pack Unit’s temperatures violate their Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment.
He ordered Texas to submit proposed remedies to him by Aug. 3 and set a hearing for Aug. 8.
The class members’ attorney Jeff Edwards told the Associated Press he’s pleased with the order.
“It is a very well-reasoned, thoughtful response to a problem that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice should have fixed years ago. Unfortunately, it is like chiseling granite to get the agency to move into the 21st century,” he said.
A Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman said the agency will appeal the order to the Fifth Circuit.