Bayou City

Texas Will Transfer 1,000 Heat-Sensitive Inmates to A/C After Federal Judge's Ruling

After a federal judge ruled that housing inmates in a prison that can often get hotter than 100 degrees is a cruel and unusual punishment, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice plans to transfer roughly 1,000 heat-sensitive prisoners to air-conditioned units.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison ordered last month that TDCJ must find a way to make sure the Wallace Pack Unit is no hotter than 88 degrees in areas where elderly, disabled and other heat-sensitive inmates are housed, including those on psychiatric meds whose bodies have trouble regulating heat. Ellison didn't necessarily order TDCJ to install air conditioning for those inmates, leaving it up to TDCJ to get the job done.

TDCJ will transfer most of the heat-sensitive inmates to the Diboll Correctional Center in Diboll and the Travis State Jail in Austin, which are both air-conditioned. The vast majority of prisons in Texas, however, are not. In their class-action lawsuit against TDCJ, the inmates note that 23 people have died in Texas prisons because of heat-related illness since 1998 — and this does not include countless other cases in which heat was a contributing factor in an inmate's death but not the sole cause, attorneys note.

To prevent heat-related illness, Ellison also ordered that TDCJ create a heatwave policy, given TDCJ had demonstrated that it failed to take any precautions during extreme heat warnings. In fact, one official had told Ellison that TDCJ didn't do anything special during extreme heat because the advisories happen "pretty much every day during the summertime." TDCJ will now restrict or prohibit outdoor work and recreation during heat advisories, serve cold food, allow inmates to sleep on the floor and carry around a towel, and give them free electrolyte-heavy sports drinks to stay hydrated.

TDCJ also intends to beef up its so-called "respite" program, in which inmates are supposed to be able to access air-conditioned rooms in the prison whenever they need to cool down. Ellison, however, found that TDCJ was only haphazardly offering this program to inmates, who Ellison suspected weren't well-informed that they didn't need to feel like they were going to have a heat stroke in order to ask for some relief. TDCJ made some new posters to make clear that classrooms in the prisons are available for respite at any time of day or night, whenever inmates ask.

Last, Ellison ordered TDCJ to install better window screens to keep out bugs that have been biting inmates at night. Here's where TDCJ's proposal raises some questions. The agency estimates it will cost $78,000 to install these window screens. Temporarily, TDCJ is just going to tape mesh screens to the building until it can begin substantial construction. The tape, it estimates, will cost $2,082. We inquired about what type of tape this will be, as it appears it must certainly be excellent stuff. The screens themselves will cost less, an estimated $1,968, for 396 windows.

Once TDCJ can get to construction, it plans to hire two labor techs, who it estimates will be paid $25 an hour, for a total of $31,000 between the two of them. The job is estimated to take 18 weeks. They will also be paid an estimated total of $12,500 for "travel." It's unclear what exactly this means. Could TDCJ not find any locals to do the job? How far away do these workers live that it will be so expensive for them to travel to the prison for work? Does this include room and board, perhaps?

We are unsure — a TDCJ spokesman did not respond to our questions Friday afternoon.

The plaintiffs' attorneys have maintained all throughout the lawsuit that TDCJ has been churning out the highest possible cost estimates to make heat relief for prisoners appear more expensive than it really is. For example, TDCJ estimated it would cost $1.2 million to temporarily install air conditioning at the Pack Unit. Judge Ellison found that it was closer to somewhere above $110,000. Plaintiffs' attorney Mike Singley said in an interview that TDCJ was projecting costs for state-of-the-art, "gold-plated Rolls-Royce, diamond-dust-on-top" air-conditioning units. "We're not trying to do a fancy office building here," Singley said. "We're trying to make it workable."

Ellison also said in his ruling that the costs don't matter when people's constitutional rights are being violated, even when those people have been convicted of horrible crimes.

"As [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky said more than 150 years ago, 'The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,'" Ellison wrote. "Prisoners are human beings with spouses and children who worry about them and miss them. Some of them will likely someday be shown to have been innocent of the crimes of which they are accused. But, even those admittedly guilty of the most heinous crimes must not be denied their constitutional rights. We diminish the Constitution for all of us to the extent we deny it to anyone."

TDCJ will present its proposals to mitigate heat at the Pack Unit to Ellison in a hearing on Tuesday.
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn