Help is on the way for vulnerable Texas prison inmates suffering through summer heat
Updated 7:00 pm, Wednesday, August 2, 2017
Relief may be in sight for hundreds of heat-sensitive inmates at the Pack Unit northwest of Houston.
State officials on Thursday are set to roll out their plan for providing cool living quarters for medically vulnerable inmates at the geriatric facility after a federal judge found the swampy indoor conditions amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment.”
While U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison has not ordered the state to install air conditioning, his emergency injunction on July 19 called for cooled beds for 475 inmates who take medication or have diabetes, high blood pressure and other conditions that make it hard for their bodies to fight the heat.
The ruling marked a turning point in the federal civil rights lawsuit, which has drawn national attention to the rights of people who lack the authority to adjust the thermostat and the freedom to leave the premises.
Witnesses testified that inmates and guards alike had fainted from indoor temperatures that sometimes surpass 100 degrees. One inmate testified about heat-induced vomiting and another recalled a headache that felt like an ice pick to the brain.
Ellison ruled that officials at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice obstructed remedies and showed “deliberate indifference” to inmate suffering. He gave them until Aug. 8 to implement the plan, a draft of which is expected to be submitted to the court Thursday.
About 80 percent of Texas prison inmates are assigned to living units without air conditioning, even during heat waves, according to Jason Clark, a spokesman for TDCJ.
Since 1977, county jails across Texas have required that indoor temperature be kept between 65 and 85 degrees. All but seven of the 122 federal facilities run by the Bureau of Prisons offer air conditioning, an official said. Even the federal detention center at Guantanamo Bay, which drew attention for the treatment of high-profile international prisoners, has cooling units.
TDCJ has not yet responded to a request by the Houston Chronicle for the total number of heat-sensitive inmates in state custody. However, prisoners’ rights advocates estimate that thousands of people are under official “heat protection” designation at Texas facilities that lack air conditioning.
Jennifer Erschabek, executive director of Texas Inmate Families Association, said she hopes state officials will consider the fate of its most vulnerable charges when implementing changes at the Pack Unit.
“I can easily say there are thousands of people in the system who are on heart medication, diabetes medication, or have HIV, Hepatitis C or psychotropic medications that make them heat sensitive in these dire conditions,” said Erschabek, whose group conducts an informal heat survey each year among inmates families.
“People need to be housed in a place where it’s not a life and death situation for them in the summer,” she said.
Erschabek said her organization has had small victories in addressing inmate grievances related to heat waves. Her group reached out to wardens at six TDCJ units where guards were reportedly unresponsive to inmates afflicted by extreme heat or failed to provide sufficient water, ice or cold showers. In every instance, she said, the wardens and regional directors took action.
Melissa Brown, who runs a group called Adopt an Inmate, said she hopes TDCJ will extend heat protection fixes at the Pack Unit to all inmates.
“The whole ‘heat-restricted’ thing is absurd because inside the cells it can be over 120 degrees, with 90 percent humidity,” she said. “There is no inmate that isn’t medically compromised in those conditions.”
Brown said prison transfer units, such as Holliday, Gurney, Garza East and Garza West, have metal roofs and no windows, so on hot days the floor fans just blow hot air around. She has heard reports of inmates smashing windows at another unit to get air flow during the hot months.
The 2014 lawsuit filed in Houston was brought by six inmates at the Pack Unit after summer heat waves in 2011 and 2012 caused multiple inmates across the state to die from heat stroke. Since 1998, 23 inmates have died of hyperthermia, or heat stroke, in Texas prisons.
Ellison noted in his recent ruling that heat deaths — in the free world or otherwise — are commonly under reported, since other medical problems contribute.
The Pack lawsuit is among 10 lawsuits filed in Ellison’s court by attorneys from Edwards Law in Austin and the Texas Civil Rights Project. Eight families of inmates who died of heatstroke have brought wrongful death suits and another inmate who survived a heat stroke has also sued TDCJ.
In the Pack case, Ellison ruled that the inmates were likely to win at trial because the conditions they’ve endured violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
In addition to the remedies for heat-sensitive inmates, Ellison ordered the prison to improve access to respite areas, develop a heat-wave policy and other measures.
State officials have said they plan to appeal the ruling to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In the meantime, they must comply with the judge’s injunction. Ellison’s order remains in effect for 90 days, carrying through the hottest months.
Local prison rights advocates say the prison heat problem should be treated as a humanitarian concern.
“It’s a human rights issue because these people do not have an option to go somewhere or do anything to enable them to cool off,” Erschabek said. “They wet the concrete to lay down on cool concrete and put a fan on themselves but it’s just biding time until the weather cools down. It’s just horrendous.”
Following the spate of heat deaths in 2011 and 2012, the Human Rights Clinic at University of Texas Law School spent two years interviewing TDCJ inmates about the heat.
Professor Ariel Dulitsky, a human rights lawyer who runs the clinic, said researchers concluded the state’s treatment amounts to cruelty and torture, in violation of a United Nations Convention.
“All these people are under the absolute control of Texas, of the state, and everything that happens to them is viewed through the actions or omissions of the state,” he said. “At the end of the day, many of these situations amount to torture.”
He said it is a matter his students brought to the attention of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in October 2014, but TDCJ officials declined an invitation to respond to the law students’ allegations.
Dulitsky said the students concluded that Texas had violated international law.
“Due to the amount of suffering inflicted on many inmates, Texas is implicated in torturing inmates,” he said. “If Texas does not remedy the situation it will implicate the U.S., not just Texas.”