The aerial view of the Terrell and Stringfellow units on August 30.
The aerial view of the Terrell and Stringfellow units on August 30.
Photo Courtesy of TDCJ

Harvey Did a Big Favor for 600 Heat-Sensitive Prisoners

Since inundating the Texas coast at the end of August, Hurricane Harvey has done virtually nothing good for anyone — but there's at least one group of people who are an exception: approximately 600 heat-sensitive prison inmates who, thanks to Harvey, are about to get some air conditioning.

Here's how that happened: According to Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark, three prisons located near the overflowing Brazos River — the Terrell, Ramsey and Stringfellow units — were at risk of severe flooding as Harvey pounded the area. So the prisoners — about 4,500 of them — were evacuated to facilities on higher ground. One such location was the Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota — which is currently under federal court oversight after a judge found that its extreme heat violates the right of prisoners to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison ruled in July that heat-sensitive inmates in the Pack Unit could not be subjected to temperatures higher than 88 degrees, and therefore would have to be kept in air conditioning or transferred to other units where there is a/c. About 75 percent of prison units don't have it — including the notoriously sweltering Pack Unit, which can often see temperatures upwards of 100 degrees during the summertime and which Ellison said poses "substantial risk of serious injury or death as a result of overheating." Plaintiffs in the class action cited 23 heat-related deaths since 1998.

Now, because TDCJ even temporarily housed just over 1,000 inmates from Stringfellow at the Pack Unit, Ellison ruled that the estimated 600 heat-sensitive inmates from that group automatically qualified for the relief under the class action.

Lawyers for TDCJ argued they should be allowed to "temporarily suspend" Ellison's order given that the inmates from Stringfellow weren't supposed to be staying at the prison long, and given that with all the chaos caused by Harvey, prison officials were unable to avoid bringing the heat-sensitive inmates to the un-air-conditioned prison. But Ellison denied that request, saying, "The risk of harm to these individuals when they are housed in dangerously hot areas has not changed."

Clark said TDCJ is now in the process of determining the exact number of heat-sensitive inmates brought to the Pack Unit from Stringfellow. They will then be brought to air-conditioned beds.

Even though the waters have receded, Clark said these inmates have been unable to return to Stringfellow. The reason TDCJ had to bring them to the Pack Unit in the first place, Clark said, is that "the alternative was for buses to pass [the Pack Unit] and continue on dangerous roadways and place those offenders in another facility’s gymnasium," thus facing the risk of flooding the bus.

"The department strongly disagrees with [the] judge’s ruling," Clark said. "We stand by our decision to keep offenders out of harm’s way."

And apparently to keep them in stifling temperatures.

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