Judge ex­tends or­der on cool­ing for some in­mates

Heat-sen­si­tive pris­on­ers must have ac­cess to AC

Houston Chronicle - - CITY | STATE - By Gabrielle Banks gabrielle.banks@chron.com

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.

Emer­gency in­junc­tion

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.

Hun­dreds trans­ferred

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.

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