Settlement reached in lawsuit over sweltering Texas prison
The agreement would call for the Texas DCJ to guarantee air conditioning for 1,400 inmates of the Wallace Pack Unit
DALLAS — A tentative settlement agreement has been reached in a civil rights lawsuit in which attorneys for inmates at a Southeast Texas prison said sweltering summer heat was endangering the inmates' health, both sides announced Friday.
The agreement would call for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to guarantee air conditioning for 1,400 inmates of the Wallace Pack Unit covered by the lawsuit, said Jeff Edwards of Austin, the inmates' attorney. Temporary arrangements would be made for air conditioning this summer and a permanent solution thereafter, he said.
Prison system spokesman Jason Clark said the deal would provide additional safeguards for Pack Unit inmates susceptible to extreme heat. He said the specifics haven't been finalized and he declined to comment further.
U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison plans a hearing next month in Houston to approve the settlement, Edwards said.
Although the guarantee is limited to the Pack Unit, about 95 miles (153 kilometers) northwest of Houston, Edwards said he hopes the criminal justice department will see that heat-sensitive inmates at other prisons could obtain the same results in court.
"Inmates in any unit in Texas that lacks air conditioning or climate control are going to be in danger," especially those with cardiovascular issues, diabetes or mental problems, Edwards said.
Attorneys for the inmates who filed suit seeking emergency relief argued the intense heat violated their constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment. Evidence showed the heat index at the prison, the combination of temperature and humidity, topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) during 13 days in 2016, and was between 90 and 99 degrees on 55 days.
Last summer, Ellison, after a nine-day hearing on the emergency request, found that conditions in the housing area of the Pack Unit subjected inmates " to a substantial risk of serious injury or death" and that the risk was "significantly higher" for heat-sensitive inmates.
Prison officials had 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. The prison system was "deliberately indifferent" to the heat risks, the judge concluded.
Figures presented in court last summer showed 22 inmates have died of heat stroke since 1998, although no heat-related deaths had occurred at the Pack Unit.
Ellison ordered the prison system to lower prison temperatures to 88 degrees Fahrenheit (31 Celsius) for 500 "heat-sensitive" Pack Unit inmates, prompting the prison system to move about 1,000 heat-sensitive inmates to cooler prisons temporarily.
Oppressive summer heat has become an increasing issue in prisons across the South. On Wednesday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans struck down a lower-court order that Louisiana state prison officials keep death row heat indices below 88 degrees Fahrenheit (31 Celsius) for the benefit of three ailing condemned killers. The three-judge 5th Circuit panel ruled that while a "temperature trigger" may be used in deciding when to implement heat-abatement measures, a "temperature ceiling" was impermissible.