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Judge OKs Texas’ plan to move inmates from hot prison

A judge agreed to the state’s plan to temporarily move the 1,037 prisoners to other cooler lockups

By Michael Graczyk
Associated Press

HOUSTON — A federal judge who found the oppressive heat at a Texas prison threatened the health of many of the inmates agreed Tuesday to the state’s plan to temporarily move the 1,037 prisoners to other cooler lockups.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison ruled last month in a lawsuit from six inmates 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 proposed housing most of the inmates in climate-controlled state prisons in Austin and the East Texas city of Diboll until the summer heat subsides.

After a court hearing, Ellison ordered the plan be implemented. State attorneys said the transfers would begin before daybreak Wednesday with inmates being moved in air-conditioned buses. They’ll be returned to the Pack Unit once temperatures drop in several months.

“I want to make clear we’re not waiting in any way,” assistant Texas Attorney General Craig Warner said. “It’s a process that’s going to take a couple weeks to achieve. You can’t move 1,000 people at one time.”

Jeff Edwards, the lead attorney for the prisoners, said he was satisfied “1,000 people won’t face the same danger that TDCJ purposely exposed them to.”

“Do I feel it’s the best solution? No. What the state’s response misses is that our society does and has evolved, and the idea of living in humane temperatures is something that is here to stay. And as the temperatures get hotter, the dangers are going to increase. I am satisfied that the most vulnerable will be protected.”

Ellison didn’t require the Pack Unit, built in 1983, be air conditioned, and state officials said installing temporary cooling would be cost-prohibitive and couldn’t guarantee a temperature that would comply with the judge’s mandate. The judge did give them the option to move the inmates, a step the state is taking.

Edwards said the plan didn’t address the urgency of the problems, but Ellison said it was “much more than I ever dreamt we could do” in the short time since his findings last month.

Still to be resolved is the language of posters to be placed at the prison reminding inmates of the dangers of heat and a plan for prison managers to implement during times of an extended heat wave.

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, the prison system has agreed to within two weeks place temporary screens on windows to keep insects out, with permanent screens installed within 26 weeks.