HOUSTON (CN) – Putting prison officials on notice throughout the sunbaked South, a federal judge on Tuesday approved a class-action settlement requiring Texas to install air conditioning in a state prison near Houston.
“I never dreamed we’d get air conditioning at the Pack Unit, and I believe it will benefit future generations of prisoners … What we have done is extraordinary. It’s a new day in Texas prisons,” U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison said Tuesday during a 90-minute hearing at the Houston federal courthouse.
The Wallace Pack Unit is a minimum-security prison in Navasota, 70 miles northwest of Houston, where the heat index regularly exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
One of more than 100 Texas state prisons, the Pack Unit houses about 1,300 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.
Over the past two decades, at least 23 Texas inmates have died from heat-related illness.
But the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, or TDCJ, had never seriously considered installing air conditioning in prisons that were not built with it, maintaining that it would be too expensive, until seven Pack Unit inmates filed a class action in June 2014.
Ellison found in July 2017 that the prison’s sweltering summer temperatures constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment for Pack Unit prisoners with health conditions that make them sensitive to heat.
The TDCJ has already installed temporary air conditioning in the Pack Unit’s housing areas, and agreed to replace it with permanent air conditioning by May 1, 2020, subject to approval by the Texas Legislature.
Ellison fielded objections Tuesday to the proposed settlement from 20 Pack Unit inmates via speakerphone, but found that most of their concerns did not apply to the settlement and could be addressed through the prison system’s grievance process or by the inmate filing a civil rights lawsuit.
Inmate Jim Smith said he did not understand why the settlement does not mandate air conditioning for the prison’s chow hall and gym, where religious services are held.
“I’m a fat boy. I’m huge. I get hot and I sweat a lot. And it’s not good, not comfortable. And I love air conditioning,” Smith said.
“I think we all do,” Ellison said.
Smith conceded the settlement is a rare win for inmates, despite his issues with it.
“Anything gained in TDCJ is a plus,” he said.
“I think that’s what we’re losing sight of,” Ellison said, before approving the settlement from the bench.
Standing in the sun outside the courthouse after the hearing, with temperatures topping 90 degrees Fahrenheit, lead class counsel Jeff Edwards beamed as he credited Texas officials for being open to a settlement.
“This is as good a day as a civil rights attorney can have. The settlement will benefit thousands of people in the TDCJ. All Texans should be happy because it took the state of Texas to realize that the rights of inmates are no different than the rights of anybody else,” he said.
Edwards said the settlement means Pack Unit prisoners will no longer have to live in stifling heat “that can kill you,” and it could serve as a template for inmates at other Texas prisons and in other states to make their own cases for air conditioning.
“Today was about helping 1,300 people. But my hope is that makes waves down the road for Texas and other Southern states. And I think it will,” he said.
Most Texas prisons do not have air conditioning, and the same is true for prisons in five other Southern states. But as a result of the Pack Unit settlement, TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier said he has plans to move tens of thousands of at-risk inmates to 29 prisons that already have air conditioning, the Houston Chronicle reported.
Edwards had another reason to smile Tuesday. The settlement calls for Texas to pay him and his co-counsel $4.5 million for attorney’s fees and expenses.
In addition to Edwards, the class was represented by attorneys with Reynolds Frizzell in Houston and the Texas Civil Rights Project.
Eight wrongful death lawsuits from families of inmates whose deaths were precipitated by hot temperatures in Texas prisons were also settled in the deal, the Chronicle reported. Edwards’ firm represented the families.