Federal Court: Texas Must Address Prison Heat

Barsaba Taglieri
Luglio 21, 2017

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison in Houston gave Texas prison officials two weeks to lower the temperature inside the Pack Unit in Central Texas to 88 degrees for heat-sensitive inmates, or move them elsewhere.

These are all among the reasons that, on Wednesday, a federal judge in Houston ruled that such conditions violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment - that there is a "substantial risk of serious illness or death from the current conditions at the Pack Unit".

On Wednesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton slammed the judge's ruling, vowing to appeal.

Per the ruling, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has 15 days to devise a plan to house some 500 "heat-sensitive" inmates housed in living quarters exceeding no more than 88 degrees at the Wallace Pack Unit, located about 70 miles northwest of Houston near Navasota.

Judge Ellison visited the Pack Unit before ruling against the state. During the summer, he testified that he sweats profusely, making it hard to write letters because the moisture drips all over his paper, the ruling states.

"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.

He finds that it is often cooler to lie on the concrete floors than in his bunk, because his personal fan blows hot air and does not have a cooling effect. "Some of them will likely someday be shown to have been innocent of the crimes of which they are accused". Texas prison officials say a system of fans, cold water and cold showers are available to inmates to help them survive the heat. The heat index in the prison is, more often than not, above 100 degrees during the summer. 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".

"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.

Plaintiffs' attorney Scott Medlock said they intend to take the case to trial and will fight for greater relief for the inmates - including fully operating air-conditioning for all.

In his findings, Ellison says the administration offices are air conditioned but not the dorms. TDCJ defended its position that installing air conditioning units is too costly. 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.

In his ruling, the judge quotes Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky's famous line about Siberian prisons: "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons". "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".

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