Texas will appeal prison heat ruling

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton today voiced his disappointment after a federal judge sided with a group of Texas inmates who sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) over summer heat conditions at the Wallace Pack Unit northwest of Houston.

Among other things, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison granted a preliminary injunction that orders the TDCJ to lower the temperatures in the Pack Unit’s housing areas where heat-sensitive inmates reside to a heat index of no more than 88 degrees or transfer them to other jails, and provide all inmates access to unlimited periods in air-conditioned respite areas.

“Each summer, including this one, Plaintiffs face a substantial risk of serious harm from the sweltering Texas heat, and Defendants have been deliberately indifferent in responding to this risk,” Judge Keith Ellison wrote in his 101-page ruling.

The court refused to grant all of the relief the plaintiffs sought, such as retrofitting the Unit with a permanent air conditioning system.

“The judge’s ruling downplays the substantial precautions TDCJ already has in place to protect inmates from the summer heat,” Paxton said. “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. 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.”

The TDCJ has maintained that there are sufficient measures in place to safely cool inmates.

“The safety and security of not only our staff, but our offenders that we are charged with overseeing is paramount to us,” TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said from an office inside the Darrington Unit last week. “So we take numerous precautions to ensure that we mitigate those extreme temperatures. And we believe those mitigating efforts are effective.”

It has been estimated it would cost the TDCJ $20 million to retrofit the Pack Unit with a permanent air conditioning system had the Court required TDCJ to provide such a remedy.

To mitigate potential health problems from the heat, Pack Unit offenders are provided ice water, along with fans and other ventilation, cool-down showers, unlimited rest periods in air-conditioned areas, and education concerning heat precautions. When heat conditions warrant, normal inmate activity is restricted.

In addition, prison employees are trained and instructed to identify those that may have heat-related illnesses and refer them to medical staff for treatment.

In his ruling on the Pack Unit, Judge Ellison called the steps taken by the department “the bare minimum.”

“They have implemented mitigating measures that they know, or should know, are ineffective given the extreme heat at the Pack Unit, and they have failed to consider seriously the many more effective options available to them.

“Even if the remedies ordered would be ‘fiscally catastrophic’ for TDCJ, as Defendants maintain they are, the Fifth Circuit has held that ‘inadequate resources can never be an adequate justification for depriving any person of his constitutional rights,’” Judge Ellison wrote.

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