The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is gearing up to provide relief for heat-sensitive inmates in the state’s Wallace Pack Unit just north of Houston. This comes after a ruling by U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison that requires the state to provide relief within 15 days of the ruling.
The ruling came from a 2014 lawsuit alleging that the lack of air conditioning in the Pack Unit – which primarily houses inmates over the age of 60 – equated to cruel and unusual punishment. While Ellison ultimately ruled in inmates’ favor, Attorney General Ken Paxton stated that, “the judge’s ruling downplays the substantial precautions the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) already has in place to protect inmates from the summer heat,” and that the department will appeal the ruling. In the meantime, TDCJ is moving to provide relief for those inmates who are “medically vulnerable.”
They were given until August 8 to provide a plan for addressing the issue.
TDCJ said they plan to transfer the heat-sensitive inmates to two air-conditioned units: the Diboll Correctional Center and the Travis State Jail in Austin. TDCJ will also make an earnest attempt at informing inmates of their respite program, enabling them to access air-conditioned rooms in the prison if they need to cool down.
About 75 percent of Texas prisons aren’t equipped with A/C and tend to rely on fans for air circulation. The class action lawsuit in 2014 was filed following a string of heat-related deaths in Texas prisons.
Although the inmates seeking respite wanted temperature reductions to a comfortable level, the court ruled that the state simply has to reduce heat to a level that doesn’t pose a significant risk of harm.
“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 who are 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,” read the ruling.
TDCJ also plans to begin prohibiting work and other outdoor activities during times of heat advisories, providing cold food and free electrolyte drinks like Gatorade, and allowing inmates to sleep on the floor and carry around a towel.
TDCJ is expected to present the plan to Judge Ellison this week.