Judge weighs Texas' plan to move inmates from hot prison

A judge acknowledged that it was the hottest time of the year and said he'd use the hearing to determine a timetable for improving the situation

By Michael Graczyk
Associated Press

HOUSTON — Lawyers for about 1,000 inmates at an unbearably hot Texas prison that lacks air conditioning will get their chance on Tuesday to respond to the state's plan to temporarily house them in climate controlled lockups.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison ruled last month that the conditions inside the Wallace Pack Unit, a state prison about 65 miles (105 kilometers) northwest of Houston where it sometimes feels hotter than 100 degrees (38 Celsius), amount to cruel and unusual punishment. He ordered that inmates with certain health conditions or who are at least 65 years old be transferred or housed elsewhere in the prison where temperatures don't exceed 88 degrees (31 Celsius).

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has proposed temporarily housing the inmates in climate-controlled state prisons in Austin and the East Texas city of Diboll. While Ellison didn't require the Pack Unit, built in 1983, be air conditioned, state officials said installing temporary cooling would be cost-prohibitive and couldn't guarantee a temperature that would comply with the judge's mandate.

Jeff Edwards, the inmates' lead attorney, said he's worried that the state's plan to move the inmates by bus could take several weeks to complete during the hottest time of year. He said the state should be embracing the court order, as it will benefit both the prisoners and guards.

"This always has been about the core issue: Get people out of the heat," he said. "We're in the absolute apex of the heat."

In his ruling, Ellison acknowledged that it was the hottest time of the year and said he'd use Tuesday's hearing to determine a timetable for improving the situation.

Evidence during a nine-day hearing in June showed the heat index at the prison, the combination of temperature and humidity, topped 100 degrees during 13 days in 2016, and was between 90 and 99 degrees on 55 days. On July 19, the date of Ellison's ruling, it was 104.

Prison officials argued that they provide the nearly 1,500 Pack Unit inmates with showers, fans and ice water, other ventilation, unlimited rest periods in air-conditioned areas and education concerning heat precautions. Some parts of the prison are air conditioned. Housing areas are not.

Records show that 23 Texas inmates have died of heat stroke since 1998, although no heat-related deaths have occurred at the Pack Unit, one of Texas' 106 prisons. Only 28 of them are fully air conditioned.

The state has said it will appeal Ellison's ruling. State officials have said installing air conditioning in prisons would cost tens of millions of dollars.

For Pack Unit inmates considered healthy and not subject to transfer, Ellison has ordered managers to develop a heat wave policy and install screens for open windows to keep out insects.

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