Settling lawsuit, Texas agrees to air-condition prison

5:51 p.m Friday, Feb. 2, 2018 Texas News & Politics
MICHAEL STRAVATO
Keith Cole, serving a life sentence for a 1994 murder, was among the Wallace Pack Unit inmates who sued, arguing that excessive heat placed inmate lives in danger. Michael Stravato/ The New York Times

Ending a 3½-year legal battle, Texas officials have agreed to air-condition an East Texas prison where heat-sensitive prisoners argued that triple-digit temperatures put their lives at risk every summer, a lawyer for the inmates said Friday.

The settlement, hammered out during several intense days of mediation earlier this week, must be finalized and presented to a Houston federal judge for approval, Austin lawyer Jeff Edwards said.

“I can’t tell you what happened inside that room, but I can tell you the result — every inmate in there is are going to get AC,” Edwards said.

Approval by U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison would end a high-profile lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates at the Navasota-area Wallace Pack Unit, which houses about 1,400 elderly inmates and others with chronic medical conditions who, lawyers argued, are particularly susceptible to heat-related injury.

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Edwards said the goal was to present a final settlement for the judge’s approval in early March.

Jason Clark, Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman, confirmed that both sides had reached a tentative settlement but said he could not provide details until the agreement became final and was presented to Ellison.

In addition to ending the fight over air-conditioning the Pack unit, prison officials also agreed to allow heat-sensitive inmates to be driven to medical appointments in air-conditioned vehicles — ending a practice that discouraged treatment by requiring them to sit, sometimes for hours, in hot buses, Edwards said.

“What I think the agency did, upon significant self-reflection, was say that ‘it’s our job, and our duty is to care for and take custody over men who have made mistakes, and that no one should be in jeopardy just over the temperature,’” Edwards said.

“It’s a very significant settlement because it shows that the Constitution truly applies to everyone. It’s a very rare thing when five or six inmates, or anyone who’s disenfranchised, can bring a suit to protect their rights and win against an agency or state with unlimited resources,” he said.

The lawsuit, filed in June 2014 with help from lawyers from the Texas Civil Rights Project and the University of Texas Civil Rights Clinic, said Pack unit inmates were housed in dorms with metal exterior walls that “hold heat like a parked car,” creating indoor temperatures that routinely exceed 100 degrees in the summer.

When the lawsuit was filed, Edwards said he anticipated additional lawsuits would follow to reduce heat in other prisons.

Although the settlement announced Friday applies only to the Pack unit, Edwards said he hoped it would establish principles that the prison agency will apply to other units where excessive heat can be life-threatening, ending the need for more lawsuits.

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“Hopefully, there’s been a sea change at the agency, an understanding that this is necessary and it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “That is kind of the granite that has been chiseled away over the years (of the legal fight). I don’t think there is anybody at TDCJ now who doesn’t understand the need to protect vulnerable inmates from the heat.

“Time will tell whether or not there’s some sort of domino effect, and that will really, really depend on the agency and the policymakers,” Edwards said.

News of the settlement agreement came as the case was heading toward a March 5 trial and after Ellison issued a July order requiring prison officials to protect Pack unit inmates from excessive heat. The order accused prison officials of being “deliberately indifferent” to the risks posed by the heat.

The prison agency responded by temporarily moving about 1,000 inmates to facilities that had air conditioning, including the Travis County Jail.

Those inmates have since been relocated to Beaumont-area prisons that already had air conditioning, Clark said Friday.