Judge orders Texas to lower temperature in sweltering prison

HOUSTON (AP) - A federal judge Wednesday gave state prison officials 15 days to come up with a plan to lower the temperature to 88 degrees (31.11 Celsius) inside a Southeast Texas prison where attorneys for inmates say the sweltering summer heat is endangering their health.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison's preliminary injunction applies to about 500 "heat-sensitive" inmates at the Pack Unit, about 65 miles (104.6 kilometers) northwest of Houston. Those prisoners, among about 1,450 held in the prison, already have a variety of health conditions or are at least 65 years old.

Attorneys for six 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 during 13 days in 2016, and was between 90 and 99 degrees on 55 days. The heat index Wednesday was 104.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials contended they provide prisoners with showers, fans and ice water, other ventilation, unlimited rest periods in air-conditioned areas and education concerning heat precautions. The prison infirmary is air conditioned along with administrative offices, visitation areas, the education department, the barbershop and a small portion of the prison craft shop. Housing areas are not.

Ellison, who held a nine-day hearing last month on the emergency request, said in his 101-page ruling the prisoners had shown conditions in the housing area of the Pack Unit "subject them to a substantial risk of serious injury or death" and that the risk was "significantly higher" for heat-sensitive inmates.

The prison system was "deliberately indifferent" to the heat risks, the judge concluded.

Figures show 22 inmates have died of heat stroke since 1998, although no heat-related deaths have occurred at the Pack Unit.

Ellison visited the prison to see the conditions for himself and dismissed arguments that prisoners in previous generations survived hot summers without benefits of modern technology.

"To deny modern technology to inmates today for the simple reason that it was not available to inmates in past generations is an argument that proves too much," he said. "No one suggests that inmates should be denied up-to-date medical and psychiatric care, or that they should be denied access to radio or television, or that construction of prison facilities should not use modern building materials. The treatment of prisoners must necessarily evolve as society evolves."

Ellison's order does not mandate the prison agency install air conditioning in heat-sensitive inmate housing areas, but says prison officials can reconfigure prison areas already cooled to accommodate those inmates or move them to other prisons around the state.

"It is a very well-reasoned, thoughtful response to a problem that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice should have fixed years ago," Jeff Edwards, one of the lead attorneys for the inmates, said. "Unfortunately, it is like chiseling granite to get the agency to move into the 21st century. Just like in the old days, a federal judge had to step in. You would hope that wouldn't be necessary, but clearly it is."

Under the injunction, the prison agency also must install screens on windows in housing areas to keep out insects and develop a heat wave policy for the Pack Unit, which was built in 1983.

Prisons spokesman Jason Clark said the department was "reviewing our options at this time."

"In the interim, the agency will be appealing the decision to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals," he said.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called the ruling disappointing and said it "downplays the substantial precautions TDCJ already has in place to protect inmates from the summer heat."

"Texas taxpayers shouldn't be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars to pay for expensive prison air conditioning systems, which are unnecessary and not constitutionally mandated," he said. "We'll appeal the decision and are confident that TDCJ is already doing what is constitutionally required to adequately safeguard offenders from heat-related illnesses."