There is no question summer heat in Texas is oppressive. In the past 20 years, at least 22 Texas inmates have died from heat stroke, but the majority of Texas prisons do not have air conditioning.
On September 6, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison in Houston said he is considering putting prison officials who have failed to address serious temperature issues in their facilities in cells so they could experience the extreme heat.
His comment was made during an emergency hearing. However, should Ellison hold these officials in contempt of court for failing to address these long-standing issues, it is likely they will spend their jail time in an air-conditioned federal venue. While an attorney representing inmates recommended fining the officials, Ellison responded that taxpayers would shoulder the monetary burden, not the officials responsible.
The previous day, lawyers representing approximately 900 prisoners in a class-action lawsuit filed a motion holding prison officials in contempt for continuing to keep these inmates in hot conditions and covering up the failure to cool them, which prompted the emergency hearing.
However, no representatives from the state Attorney General’s office or the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (“TDCJ”) attended the hearing. Ellison scheduled another hearing for next week and made the comments regarding the sanctioning of officials if they do not show up and testify.
Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Two years ago, Ellison declared the lack of air conditioning in Texas prisons “cruel and unusual punishment.” At the time, he ordered prison officials at the Wallace Pack Unit Prison, roughly 100 miles outside of Houston, to keep the heat index at the facility at 88 degrees or less. The Pack Unit consists primarily of geriatric and medically compromised inmates, who are even more vulnerable to excessive heat.
The heat index includes not only the temperature but the relative humidity. Also known as the apparent temperature, this index measures what heat feels like to the human body.
In 2014, inmates at Pack filed a lawsuit over high temperatures in the non-air-conditioned units, where temperatures often exceeded 100 degrees. In 2018, a settlement was reached regarding air conditioning, but the TDCJ has violated the terms of the agreement.
Ellison ordered the installation of air-conditioning and stated prison officials were “intentionally indifferent” to the heat risks. He noted that some of the inmates were living in grotesque conditions.
So far this year, the TDCJ reports 56 cases of inmates and employing suffering from heat-related illnesses, and summer is not yet over. Last year, the total number of heat-related illnesses reached 71. In August, the Houston area experienced nine days of temperatures in the triple digits, and overall temperatures ranged from 91 to 104 degrees,
The Next Hearing
Ellison ordered the TDCJ to update him at the next hearing on the temperatures at each of the 12 housing units for inmates named in the lawsuit, as well as what they are doing now to keep inmates at Pack cool. In addition, the wardens of these units must either appear or phone in for testimony under oath about the heat and court order compliance.
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