Judge threatens to keep Texas prison officials in hot cells over lack of air conditioning in inmates' cells
During an emergency hearing, US District Judge Keith Ellison said it was "the most obvious sanction is pretty straightforward"
HOUSTON, TEXAS: A federal judge in Houston has threatened to keep Texas prison officials in the same "oppressive" conditions as inmates after receiving repeated complaints of high temperatures in jail cells that do not have air conditioning.
During an emergency hearing on Friday, September 6, US District Judge Keith Ellison said "the most obvious sanction is pretty straightforward". "We ought to have prison officials in prison at the same temperature," he said, according to a Texas Tribune report.
In a bid to ensure officials would comply with court orders and install air conditioning in Wallace Pack Unit prison, Judge Ellison debated imposing financial and other sanctions on prison authorities.
"Shouldn’t we have as a sanction, prison officials in the cells dealing with the same temperatures as the prisoners?" the judge asked Leah O'Leary, who was representing the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).
In response, O'Leary said the judge had their "attention" and that his idea would not be necessary as the state was working to fix the problem. However, Ellison questioned the efficacy of financial sanctions to prisons, as it would affect taxpayers and not prison officials.
The prisoners' attorney pointed out that if the officials are held in contempt of court, they would mostly be taken to a federal detention center, which is air-conditioned. The hearing on Friday was the latest in a five-year legal battle over unbearable temperatures in the Pack Unit.
Ellison deemed the facility's lack of air conditioning a "cruel and unusual" punishment back in 2017. At the time, he ordered the agency to devise a plan in order to maintain the heat index — a combination of temperature and humidity — at no more than 88 degrees at the Pack Unit. Furthermore, he ruled the TDCJ has been intentionally indifferent about the possible health hazards from the heat.
The Pack Unit eventually received air conditioning and temperature monitoring equipment after a settlement was reached. Furthermore, any of the 1,300 inmates at Pack Unit who were transferred to other prisons would still benefit from conditions of the settlement at their new facilities.
Jeff Edwards, an attorney for the prisoners, accused state prison officials at Friday's hearing of failing to adequately fix problems at the Pack Unit. He also said the various prison facilities where some of the 1,300 inmates were moved to did not have any kind of temperature or humidity monitoring systems as yet.
In July, inmates from the Pack Unit who were transferred to the Stiles Unit in Southeast Texas complained that the air conditioning was not working and that the heat left them "disoriented, nauseous" and on the verge of "passing out".
According to O'Leary, however, the state has taken steps to fix the problem, saying they moved most of the 1,300 inmates back to the Pack Unit. And for those who couldn't be moved back, O'Leary said the prison system had ordered thermostats to monitor temperatures of their housing areas.
At a hearing on Tuesday, September 10, Ellison delayed making a ruling on possible sanctions until he heard from prison officials. He added that while the current settlement applies only to the Pack Unit, he wants all Texas prisons to have air conditioning.
Texas has 29 air-conditioned prisons, including Pack Unit, while the remaining 75 facilities are either partially cooled or not cooled at all. Prison bosses estimated during this year's legislative session that it would cost about $1 billion to install air conditioning systems at those units that currently don't have one.
At least 22 Texas inmates have died of heatstroke since 1998, according to figures previously presented in court. However, there have been no deaths at the Pack Unit.