Texas plans to move 1,000 inmates to air-conditioned prisons

Inmates shuffle past new fans in the Darrington prison's main hallway on a hot July day. Photo courtesy of Jolie McCullough for The Texas Tribune.

by Jolie McCullough | The Texas Tribune

About 1,000 hot Texas prisoners might soon be moving to cooler accommodations.

As part of a court order, Texas submitted a plan Thursday to move about 1,000 medically sensitive inmates from the Pack Unit southeast of College Station, which is not air conditioned, to other state jails and prisons that do have air conditioning. The plan came after a federal judge ordered air conditioning for the inmates in a scathing ruling against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in July.

Almost 75 percent of Texas prisons and state jails have no air conditioning in the inmates’ living areas, and at some prisons, like the Pack Unit, temperatures regularly get above 100 degrees, according to the ruling. An ongoing class-action lawsuit filed by prisoners at the Pack Unit points to at least 23 heat-related deaths in Texas prisons since 1998 and claims temperatures at the prison constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The inmates argue housing should be kept at a maximum of 88 degrees.

Last month after an emergency injunction hearing, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison agreed the temperatures were unconstitutional and ordered air conditioning for inmates who are more prone to heat-related illnesses, such as those with heart problems or taking anti-psychotics that impair the body’s natural cooling system. The ruling is only valid through October as the underlying lawsuit remains in appellate court.

The state has argued it already does enough to counter hot temperatures without providing air conditioning, such as by allowing each inmate to have a personal fan and providing unlimited ice water. Texas has also said the cost to install air conditioning in the prison’s housing area would be an “undue burden” on the state, according to a court filing.

Ellison said other methods of heat relief could possibly work for healthy, young inmates, but not for all. He downplayed the money argument, saying cost is never an excuse for unconstitutional practices and determining the state expert's estimate of $1.2 million to provide air-conditioning at the prison this summer was "too high." The inmates' expert's price of $110,000 was "closer to the actual amount," he said. Ellison also pointed out that his ruling wasn't ordering cooling for the entire prison or even the areas where the medically sensitive prisoners are currently housed.

"Defendants may reconfigure areas that are currently air conditioned to accommodate the heat sensitive, or move them to other facilities in Texas," Ellison wrote. "Defendants have access to expertise in many different fields and can no doubt draw on that expertise in considering different options to afford the heat sensitive a safer living environment."

Texas took the option to move inmates, with a plan for about 500 to transfer to the Diboll Correctional Center and about 425 going to the Travis State Jail in Austin, according to the proposal. Some prisoners that need more medical attention are set to go to a medical unit in Beaumont. All units are already air-conditioned in the housing areas.

Aside from housing these prisoners in air-conditioned areas kept below 88 degrees, the ruling also ordered window screens for all dormitories to allow inmates to open windows without being harassed by insects. Ellison also called for a prison heat wave policy to determine what should be done and when in the event of extreme temperatures.

Texas said for temporary relief, it would tape mesh screens to the outside of the existing metal screens. A new heat wave policy also was attached to the order.

After Ellison’s order last month, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said installing air conditioning systems are “unnecessary and not constitutionally mandated.” He added the state would appeal the judge’s ruling.

But in the meantime, the state had 15 days to submit its plan to the Houston-based federal court. A hearing is set next Tuesday for the inmates’ attorneys to respond to the state's proposal.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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