Lawsuits claim Texas prison system ignores extreme temps behind bars
Attorney General Ken Paxton, who defended the state in a similar case earlier this year, said these prisoners can’t prove their rights are being intentionally violated
By Lauren McGaughy
The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS — Jessie Skinner splashed water over his body and laid down on the concrete floor of his cell. His fan provided little relief as the July sun baked the red brick building around him.
Outside, it felt like 116 degrees. Inside, Skinner said it was even hotter.
“What did it feel like? A fire burning in my chest,” Skinner wrote in a letter sent from the East Texas prison where he’s serving a life sentence for murder. “I truly thought that I was going to die.”
This year, Texas marked the second hottest summer on record.
Temperatures at the Eastham Unit where Skinner is incarcerated consistently topped 100 degrees in late July, according to state data. At some other prisons and state jails, like the one in Dallas, it was even hotter. And this year, the state confirmed dozens of inmates and staff, more than in 2017, got sick from the heat.
Now, as Texas braces for what could be a brutally cold winter, inmates are suing, demanding the state protect them from the elements.
The problem: The Texas Department of Criminal Justice does not measure temperatures inside state jails and prisons, making it impossible to obtain evidence of exactly how hot or cold it gets behind bars. Officials say it is practically difficult, and unnecessary, to get temperature readings inside.
Inmate’s lawyers and their families believe the state is deliberately stifling the information. If officials don’t know the truth, advocates say, they can’t be held accountable for it.
134 degrees in Dallas
Inmates in at least two Texas prisons allege the state has not addressed the extreme temperatures in its secure facilities, according to three previously unreported lawsuits provided to The Dallas Morning News.
Skinner, 58, who’s incarcerated at Eastham in Lovelady, and two inmates at the H.H. Coffield Unit in Tennessee Colony, filed the suits, claiming the conditions they face amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
Temperatures at Coffield are frigid in winter, convicted murderer Artis Armour, 64, alleges in his suit, and can top 120 degrees in the summer. Johnny Lee Walker, 42, who's serving 40 years for aggravated robbery, described it this way: "On this Coffield Unit, it is like being in an oven during the hot summer month [sic] and being in a freezer during the winter months."
Neither the Eastham nor Coffield Units are equipped with climate control in prisoner housing areas. They are just two of the 75 state-run jails and prisons, out of more than 100 total, where most inmates live and sleep without air conditioning.
According to hourly heat readings The News received through public records requests, the outdoor temperature at Eastham reached 106 degrees on July 23. The heat index — how hot it feels when humidity and wind are taken into account — hit 116 degrees at 4:30 p.m. and didn’t drop below 100 until around midnight.
At Hutchins State Jail, the only state-run facility in Dallas, outdoor temperatures also topped out at 106 degrees that same afternoon. But it felt like 134.
The number of heat-related illnesses behind bars increased this year by nearly 13 percent, according to information provided by the state. No one has died of heat stroke in years, the Department of Criminal Justice says, but 79 people became ill between January and October.
More than half were correctional officers and other staff.
Texas has long fought allegations its prisons are too hot. At least 23 people have died behind bars from extreme temperatures since 1998, including at least one at Hutchins in Dallas, and the state settled eight wrongful death lawsuits this year filed by inmates' families.
Also this year, the state agreed to install air conditioning at the Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota, where elderly and ill inmates successfully waged a yearslong class action lawsuit.
The inmates at Coffield and Eastham are demanding a similar remedy. Walker also convinced hundreds of Coffield inmates to sign on to his case. But his request for class action status was recommended for dismissal earlier this month, in part because he has no outside attorney.
All three men claim that prison officials know the conditions put inmates at risk and are turning a blind eye to the danger.
But Attorney General Ken Paxton, defending the state in the Walker case earlier this year, said these prisoners can’t prove their rights are being intentionally violated. To act with “deliberate indifference,” Paxton argued, they would have to know for a fact that “a substantial risk of serious harm exists” and still choose not to act.
The problem is, there is no definitive way to tell how hot it is inside prisoners’ cells. In 2014, when the inmates at the Pack Unit sued, the warden there ordered staff to stop taking indoor temperature readings.
Now, the Department of Criminal Justice confirms it doesn’t measure the temperature inside any of its jails or prisons. The one exception is the Pack Unit, where, as a result of the court settlement, the state has agreed to keep the indoor temperature at 88 degrees or lower during the summer months.
Criminal justice advocates said there’s only one reason prison officials wouldn’t want to know exactly how hot or cold it is inside these places: plausible deniability.
“It’s an effort to obfuscate the obvious,” said Jeff Edwards, a lawyer who represented the inmates at the Pack Unit. “They’re concerned about a record being made.”
Casey Phillips, who helps run a group of inmate families advocating for A/C behind bars, has similar suspicions.
“They know how hot it is inside those units,” Phillips, whose husband, Justin, is serving time on drug charges in Huntsville. “They just don’t want everyone else to know how hot it is.”
But prison officials deny they are ignoring the problem.
During last year’s heat wave, they put in place protocols that required inmates to be given extra water, more access to cool showers and a break from work when it gets too hot. Some elderly and ill inmates were moved to air-conditioned cells and the state said it would install air conditioning at the Jerry H. Hodge Unit in Rusk, which houses developmentally disabled prisoners.
The department said it’s challenging to get good readings inside, adding it measures outdoor temperatures to know when heat protocols should go into effect.
“We record temps outside for consistency and following the example of the National Weather Service,” Department Spokesman Jeremy Desel said. “It is very difficult to record interior ambient temps because you cannot assume that one location is exactly the same as any other.”
But less than five years ago, staff at the state jail in Dallas did keep detailed indoor heat records. The measurements were made inside multiple inmate dormitories, as well as outdoors. Now, staff there take only one reading — from outside. Desel refused to say exactly when, and why, the agency stopped taking air temperature readings inside Hutchins and any other facilities.
Asked about the department’s policies, the Texas state climatologist said the state could get good, representative samples indoors using handheld thermometers.
“The outdoor measurements might be a good way of telling whether a particular day is unusually warm,” John Nielsen-Gammon said. “But, by itself, it won’t tell you whether conditions inside the prisons cross some dangerous threshold. To do that, you have to have some information about how the outdoor conditions relate to the indoor conditions.”
Ultimately, whether the temperatures are taken inside or outside won’t change the department’s policies, the state’s top prison official recently told The News.
“You would be setting a whole infrastructure of thermostats or temperature monitoring tools around the system to tell you something that you already know, which is, it’s hot,” Department Executive Director Bryan Collier said in an interview after a legislative hearing in August. “And you already know at least what the outside temperature is.
“So, I’m not sure what that would change.”
‘We have to be humane’
The Pack Unit lawsuit cost $7 million to litigate, and the state estimates it’ll pay about $4 million to install air conditioning there. It’s unclear how much the department has spent on the three lawsuits it now faces.
But some lawmakers say the state of Texas will continue to be sued — and taxpayers will foot the bill — as long as its jails and prisons don't address the heating and cooling problem.
House Corrections Committee Chairman James White defended current prison officials who inherited the buildings, some of which are 100 years old, that lack climate control. But he also said every facility has at least partial A/C, so expanding heating and cooling through the entire system over several years won’t necessarily break the bank.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s not achievable,” White, R-Hillister, said this week. Last month, his committee signed on to a bipartisan report that said the state has to do more to keep inmates and staff safe from these extreme temperatures.
Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, said he’ll soon file a bill to tackle this problem. His legislation will seek to ensure conditions behind bars are safe, especially for prison staff.
“I’m not looking for it to be a spa. I’m looking for something that’s reasonable,” Menendez said. “That’s the bottom line. We have to be humane.”