Judge extends order on cooling for some inmates
Heat-sensitive prisoners must have access to AC
A federal judge in Houston on Thursday extended his injunction protecting vulnerable Texas prison inmates from the dangers of indoor heat without air conditioning.
U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison, who is overseeing a number of cases involving Texas prisons without cooling systems, ordered a 90-day extension of his order to provide air-conditioned housing for heat-sensitive inmates at the Wallace Pack Unit northwest of Houston. The order would have expired this month.
The new order guarantees heat-sensitive Pack inmates, or former Pack inmates now housed elsewhere, continued access to temperatures below 88 degrees.
In a lengthy opinion in July, the judge cited the work of Fyodor Dostoyevsky on prison conditions in ordering prison officials to bring the facility prisons up to modern standards.
“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” he wrote, going on to say that the summer conditions at the low-security geriatric unit amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Ellison issued an emergency injunction at that time, ordering Texas Department of Criminal Justice to provide air-conditioned housing for elderly inmates those with heart conditions, diabetes, hypertension and other medical conditions or who take medication that makes them vulnerable to unmitigated heat. They needed to be in air-conditioned housing for 90 days, according to the ruling.
Ellison left it to prison officials to determine how to carry out his orders. They could have opted to bring in air-conditioning units to the rural Grimes County facility, but instead in early August they chose to transport about 1,000 inmates to several facilities with air conditioning already on site.
Matters became more complicated in the weeks that followed, when rising waters of the Brazos River flooded three Texas prisons during Hurricane Harvey. Among evacuations at those facilities, TDCJ moved inmates from the Stringfellow Unit to take up empty beds at the Pack Unit. Ellison subsequently ruled that heat-sensitive inmates among that evacuated group also needed to get air conditioning. Further transports followed, in accordance with the judge’s order to provide cooler air for the Stringfellow evacuees.
The class-action lawsuit was brought by a group of inmates at the Pack Unit, following 23 heat-related deaths at Texas prisons.