HOUSTON (CN) — More than 1,000 Texas prisoners at risk of heat stroke will be put on buses bound for air-conditioned prisons starting Wednesday morning to comply with a federal judge’s order, state attorneys said Tuesday.
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.
U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison found in July that those temperatures constitute cruel and unusual punishment for prisoners with health conditions that make them sensitive to heat.
State attorneys told Ellison at a Tuesday hearing that by Aug. 29 the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will transfer 1,037 inmates from the Pack Unit to air-conditioned beds in 10 other state prisons and a hospital in Galveston that treats prisoners.
The move is temporary. The prisoners will be shipped back to the Pack Unit once the weather cools. Inmates displaced by the incoming prisoners will be sent to units that aren’t air conditioned, Texas officials said.
Texas crafted the plan in accord with Ellison’s July 19 injunction in which he ordered Texas to keep the heat index at 88 degrees or lower inside the Pack Unit’s housing areas. The judge wrote: “Defendants may reconfigure areas that are currently air conditioned to accommodate the heat sensitive, or move them to other facilities in Texas.”
Seven Pack Unit inmates filed a class action in June 2014 against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, its former executive director Brad Livingston and Pack Unit Warden Roberto Herrera.
Ellison certified a class of all current and future Pack Unit inmates in June 2016 and two subclasses for disabled and heat-sensitive prisoners.
Ellison opened the Tuesday hearing with compliments for Texas’ swift response to his order. “I think the government made a very good faith effort to respond to my plans,” he said.
But class attorney Jeff Edwards said he’s concerned the state’s schedule is too slow.
“From a health and welfare standpoint, the agency hasn’t begun to move these people yet and is asking for two or three weeks in the hottest part of the summer for something that should happen in one or two days,” Edwards said, wiping his salt-and-pepper locks from his forehead.
“At a minimum the state could move the people it considers most at risk first.”
State attorney Craig Warner said that security is the chief concern when moving 1,000 felons. He said forcing the state to prioritize which inmates should be bused first would slow down the transfers.
“We expect the movement to begin at 4 a.m. tomorrow morning. It’s not a process that can be accomplished in a couple days, but it will start immediately,” Warner said.
Ellison leaned to one side in his chair as he weighed the arguments, looking like his lunch did not agree with him, before authorizing the state’s plan.
“I don’t think the state has an incentive to delay this. When they tell me this is the best they can do, I don’t have a reason to doubt them. They’d probably be happy if it was done in 48 hours. … To move this many people in three weeks strikes me as a success, not a failure,” he said.