The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has installed air conditioning in a prison near Navasota as part of a recent settlement of a lawsuit brought by inmates over excessive heat at the facility. The settlement requires TDCJ to install temporary air conditioning at the Wallace Pack Unit by April 2018 and, subject to legislative approval, to install permanent air conditioning by May 2020. The court accepted the settlement on May 8, which could prompt additional changes to how the agency handles high-risk heat sensitive inmates in other facilities.
With the newly installed air conditioning at the Pack Unit, 29 of TDCJ’s 104 facilities, which house about 145,000 inmates, are fully air conditioned. Many of the other facilities have little or no air conditioning in living areas. Dormitories and cells with about 34,000 beds are air conditioned, and about one-third of these beds are reserved for medical, mental health, or offender treatment programs.
Pack Unit lawsuit. In the 2014 lawsuit, inmates claimed that dangerous heat at the 1,478-bed Pack Unit made confinement there unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, which is also prohibited under Texas Constitution, Art. 1, sec. 13. The suit called for requiring TDCJ to lower indoor temperatures to 88 degrees. The agency said it maintained constitutional conditions with heat mitigation efforts that included cool showers, ice water, fans, a relaxed dress code, open windows, and air-conditioned respite areas.
In 2016, a federal district court judge certified the original lawsuit filed by four inmates as a class action, naming as a general class all those incarcerated at the Pack Unit. The court also named two subclasses — one for heat-sensitive inmates, including those with certain medical conditions, on certain types of medication, or those over age 65, and another for those with disabilities and at risk of heat-related illnesses, injury, or death due to disability or medical treatment.
Preliminary order. In 2017, the court issued a preliminary injunction, finding that TDCJ’s efforts to mitigate heat at the Pack Unit were insufficient to reduce the substantial risk of serious injury or death for inmates. The court did not order TDCJ to install air conditioning but did require several broad actions. For young and healthy inmates, the court ordered TDCJ to implement a fully functioning respite program for the prison. For the heat-sensitive subclass, the court ordered the agency to lower the maximum heat index in housing areas to 88 degrees. It also required TDCJ to develop a heat wave policy for the facility.
In August, TDCJ relocated about 1,000 heat-sensitive inmates to air-conditioned housing in other facilities, although the unit’s population rebounded a few weeks later with the arrival of inmates evacuated due to Hurricane Harvey.
May lawsuit settlement. Under the May settlement agreement, which applies only to the Pack Unit, all housing areas in 2018 and 2019 will be air conditioned from April 15 through October 15 using temporary measures. Subject to legislative approval, permanent air conditioning will be installed in the prison’s housing areas by May 2020.
TDCJ reports that installing and operating the temporary cooling system at the Pack Unit cost about $800,000 in existing funds budgeted for facilities maintenance and repairs. Subject to information still being gathered, the agency estimates that permanent air conditioning will cost about $4 million to install and reports that the expenditure would appear in its fiscal 2020-21 budget request for major repairs and renovations.
The agency received $40 million in facilities repair funding for fiscal 2018-19, which typically pays for items such as infrastructure repairs, security fencing and lighting, electrical renovations, and water and wastewater improvements.
TDCJ intends to use the settlement’s criteria to identify and relocate inmates at highest risk of heat injury to some of the state’s existing 34,000 beds in air-conditioned housing. To accommodate the transfers, some facilities may require infrastructure changes such as additional fencing or other security measures.
Other settlements. Court documents indicate that since 1998, 23 TDCJ inmates have died of heat-related causes, including 10 who died during a 2011 heat wave. Lawsuits against the state in eight of these deaths and one injury also were settled in May.
By Kellie A. Dworaczyk