Lawsuits take aim at extreme heat in Texas prisons

At least nine federal suits have been filed challenging the state prison system's oversight of hot facilities, which endanger COs and inmates alike

By Brandon Scott
Beaumont Enterprise

BEAUMONT, Texas — Sam Hulon did not live to see the end of his lawsuit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, one of at least nine federal suits challenging the state prison system's oversight of brutally hot facilities, which some say endanger inmates and correctional officers alike.

Hulon, who suffered from obesity and diabetes among other illnesses, was fired from TDCJ after three heat-related incidents at the Beaumont Stiles Unit in August 2014, which he said was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

He asked for accommodations under the disabilities act, hoping TDCJ would allow him to work in an air-conditioned portion of the prison.

Hulon's requests were denied, and he was "constructively terminated," according to the lawsuit Hulon died Sept. 29 after a short battle with cancer.

While his attorneys do not believe Hulon's death is linked to his work at the Stiles Unit, they are waiting to hear from his family about how to proceed with the lawsuit filed in June.

Hulon's attorneys attribute the firing to his disability and TDCJ's failure to accommodate his condition.

Like most state prisons in Texas, the Stiles Unit inmate housing area is not air-conditioned.

Where prisoners live and correctional officers work, the heat index can hit 120 degrees in a Southeast Texas summer.

"This is one of the very rare situations where the prison officers have the same interests as the prisoners," said Scott Medlock, an attorney for Hulon and others suing the state's prison system. "(The officers) want a safe working environment, and the inmates want a safe living environment.

"What TDCJ needs to do is figure out a long-term strategy to bring down the temperatures inside (the prisons). We know it's not getting any cooler here in Texas, and this is a problem we experience every single summer."

TDCJ officials insist it would cost far more to retrofit many of the older facilities with air conditioning than it does to operate them. Instead, the prisons have "system wide protocols that units utilize during extreme heat," according to a TDCJ spokesman.

Fans are strategically placed near open windows to take advantage of the fresh air exchange. Inmates can take additional showers.

Foot traffic at the prisons is closely linked to the coolest hours of the day, while vehicles moving inmates are loaded and unloaded as quickly as possible.

Employees and offenders are trained to be aware of signs and treatment for heat-related illnesses.

"The well-being of staff and offenders is a top priority for the agency, and we remain committed to making sure that both are safe during the extreme heat," TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said in an email.

TDCJ has 109 facilities across the state. Thirty of those have air conditioning in all offender housing areas, Clark said.

Medical, psychiatric and some geriatric units are air-conditioned. Every prison unit has some areas that are air-conditioned.

Where it isn't, water and ice is distributed to staff and inmates during the hottest parts of the day, Clark said.

Medlock calls the TDCJ protocols "wholly ineffective."

He is working with the Texas Civil Rights Project attorneys for more than 1,400 inmates at the Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota trying to compel TDCJ to provide air conditioning.

A federal judge in Houston granted class-action status to the lawsuit in June, allowing the suit to include the Pack Unit's general population and those in geriatric units.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison in June ordered the Navasota facility to find an immediate alternative to arsenic-laden drinking water that "violates contemporary standards of decency."

Wallis Nader, a Texas Civil Rights Project attorney, said TDCJ's efforts to mitigate extreme heat are not eliminating the deadly conditions.

"It's clearly a widespread problem," she said. "There needs to be another step and a way to cool down the facilities."

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