Prison heat ruling forces Texas to move 1,000 inmates, some to Austin


Highlights

Already air-conditioned, Travis County State Jail will get about 425 inmates.

A federal judge ordered Texas to find a solution to high heat in a Navasota prison unit.

Texas prison officials told a federal judge Thursday they will temporarily move 1,000 inmates to air-conditioned facilities, including the Travis County State Jail, to comply with a court order requiring relief for heat-sensitive prisoners.

Last month’s order from U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison of Houston required prison officials to provide relief when the interior of the Wallace Pack Unit prison in Navasota reaches a heat index of 88 degrees or higher.

Ellison gave Texas 15 days to find a remedy, saying prison officials had been “deliberately indifferent” to the risks posed by the heat, placing the unit’s inmates at significant risk of serious harm each summer. Temperatures didn’t have to be comfortable, the judge said, just low enough to avoid injury and the prospect of cruel and unusual punishment.

After considering its options, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice determined that moving the prisoners was the best short-term solution, spokesman Jason Clark said.

“Adding temporary air conditioning in a prison not built for A/C would be costly, and it’s unknown whether untested equipment would bring the heat index to a level required by the court,” Clark said.

The agency also determined that reworking already air-conditioned portions of the Pack unit to house additional inmates posed security risks and wasn’t a feasible option for the number of heat-sensitive prisoners identified by the judge, he said.

A different long-term solution will have to be found, Clark added, because temporarily relocating the prisoners every summer isn’t a sustainable option.

The Pack unit includes a medical facility for elderly inmates and others with chronic medical conditions who, lawyers said, are particularly susceptible to heat-related injury.

In his notice to the judge, state Attorney General Ken Paxton said most of the transferred inmates would be sent to two facilities that already have air conditioning — about 425 to the Travis County State Jail in East Austin, and about 500 to the Diboll Correctional Center about 110 miles north of Houston.

The remaining inmates will be sent to air-conditioned areas of other state prisons, including the Stiles Unit in Beaumont, which can handle those with “significant medical needs,” Paxton told the judge.

The moves should be finished in two weeks “and definitely within three weeks,” Paxton wrote, and inmates who will be displaced by the relocated prisoners will be sent to three prison units that don’t have air conditioning.

Prison officials will provide tighter security in the Austin and Diboll facilities, adding temporary posts where needed, assigning extra mobile patrols and security checks, and limiting the work assignments so inmates wouldn’t have access to less-secure areas, Paxton added.

Although Paxton had to file a response to meet the judge’s 15-day deadline, the attorney general has also vowed to appeal Ellison’s ruling, saying it could cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars to install air-conditioning systems.

“We’ll appeal the decision and are confident that TDCJ is already doing what is constitutionally required to adequately safeguard offenders from heat-related illnesses,” he said last month.

The judge’s order came in response to a lawsuit, filed by Pack unit inmates in 2014, that said triple-digit summer heat places their lives at risk.

“We’re going to go at it one prison at a time, because that’s what the law requires,” Austin lawyer Jeff Edwards said at the time. The Texas Civil Rights Project and the University of Texas Civil Rights Clinic joined Edwards in drafting the lawsuit.

Inmates in the Pack unit are housed in dorms with metal exterior walls that “hold heat like a parked car,” the lawsuit said. Without air conditioning, indoor temperatures “routinely exceed 100 degrees inside inmate housing areas, threatening the health and welfare of all inmates, especially the elderly, sick and disabled,” the lawsuit said.

In his order, Ellison noted that, although no heat-related deaths have been reported at the Pack unit, 23 heat-related deaths have been reported in Texas prisons since 1998.



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