HOUSTON (CN) — The Texas prison system’s chief executive acknowledged in federal court Tuesday that the system endangered inmates at a Beaumont prison this summer by not ensuring air-conditioning units were working, and taking the warden’s word for it that the air felt cool to him.
A class of Texas inmates at the Wallace Pack Unit, a minimum-security prison in Navasota, 70 miles northwest of Houston, reached a settlement with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in 2018 in which the agency agreed to maintain indoor temperatures at 88 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.
U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison found in July 2017 that the prison’s sweltering summer temperatures constitute cruel and unusual punishment for Pack Unit prisoners with health conditions that make them sensitive to heat, and mandated air-conditioning, given that 23 Texas inmates had died from heat-related illness since 1998.
The settlement also required the TDCJ to keep class members cool if they were transferred to other prisons. But after 37 class members were moved to LeBlanc Unit in Beaumont, class counsel Jeff Edwards said in a Sept. 5 motion for sanctions that many reported to him this summer that the air-conditioning there was not working.
Some complained they were having trouble breathing and sleeping and were feeling light-headed and nauseous. “I felt like I was roasting,” one inmate said, according to the motion for sanctions and contempt.
Edwards visited LeBlanc Unit the afternoon of Aug. 8 and found the 37 class members housed in temperatures between 88.2 and 92.3 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the motion. This, he says, after TDCJ’s counsel assured him in July that temperatures in the prison had not reached near 88 degrees.
TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier took the stand Tuesday and acknowledged the agency had violated the settlement.
“Where we failed as an agency, we made an assumption that because prisons were air-conditioned, they’d be under 88 degrees,” he said on cross examination.
Collier said he’d spoken to LeBlanc Unit’s warden in July and the warden told him he’d walked the unit, talked to inmates about the heat and went to housing areas and “said it felt cool.”
And, Collier said, the warden told him the maintenance man said the air-conditioners were working fine.
Edwards asked, “Can you tell the difference between 100 degree heat and temperatures in the 80s? I’m asking you as the leader of an agency with a $3 billion budget. Wouldn’t you think that would be something you could feel?”
“I believe I could,” Collier said.
“Does the warden suffer from any mental illness?” Edwards asked, drawing an objection from the TDCJ’s counsel, Leah O’Leary of the Texas Attorney General’s Office.
She said it would violate federal laws on medical privacy to discuss the warden’s health.
Judge Ellison jumped in. “I don’t think the warden is mentally ill,” he said.
Collier said the TDCJ has ordered 73 temperature gauges it is installing in prisons and O’Leary showed Ellison a small handheld device, which she said prison staff are using to measure temperature several times a day in prisons lacking wall-mounted monitors.
All 37 class members have been moved out of LeBlanc Unit to prisons with air-conditioning, Collier said.
He said of the TDCJ’s more than 100 prisons, 27 have air-conditioning units and it plans to install them in more.
At the end of the two-hour hearing, Ellison said he would grant Edwards’ request for attorney’s fees for the settlement violation investigation, sanctions motion and hearings.
Edwards also wants the TDCJ ordered to pay fines to class members of $150 per day they were housed in a prison without fully functioning air-conditioning when outdoor temperature reached 88°F.
Ellison, a Bill Clinton appointee, declined to rule on that request Tuesday. But he said he’s concerned he does not yet know the extent of the TDCJ’s misdeeds.
“For us to need these hearings to seek something as regular as temperature reading makes me worry what else I haven’t discovered yet. I don’t think I’ve discovered it all,” he said.