Richard King has given up writing letters from inside his sweltering cell at the Pack Unit prison, 30 miles south of Houston. Whenever the 71-year-old inmate tries, the sweat dripping from his face smears his writing and dampens the paper. Simple tasks, like writing a letter, become difficult during summer months in a facility that doesn't have air-conditioned rooms. Even laying down can be uncomfortable because sweat pools into his eyes, King says.
Suffering from high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity, King is one of the 500 people in the Pack Unit prison who are considered "heat sensitive" — the elderly, disabled and those with medical issues, such as heart disease, that can be inflamed in excessive heat. U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison ruled on Wednesday that heat-sensitive Pack Unit prisoners need to have access to air conditioning within 15 days. The rooms must maintain a temperature lower than a heat index of 88 degrees, and if Pack Unit is unable to provide an air-conditioned room, the prison is required to relocate the inmates into a different facility.
According to Judge Ellison's preliminary injunction, the inmates described the heat inside the prison as similar to "walk(ing) out to your car in the middle of the summertime" or a hot box in the sun. Ellison says that even young and healthy prisoners are at serious risk from the temperatures in the facility. He contended that keeping at-risk prisoners in the heat, which routinely falls around 95 to over 100 degrees, is cruel and unusual punishment infringing on inmates' Eighth Amendment rights.
"Prisoners are human beings with spouses and children who worry about them and miss them," Ellison said in his ruling. "Even those admittedly guilty of the most heinous crimes must not be denied their constitutional rights."
This ruling is part of a years-long battle to address the roughly 70 percent of Texas prisons that do not have air conditioning. Since 1998, 22 Texas inmates have died from heat-related causes. In 2011 alone, 10 prisoners died during an especially dangerous Texas heat wave.
During the 2011 heat wave, Larry McCollum arrived at the Hutchins Unit prison. One week later, he was found convulsing in his bed and was later proclaimed dead. That day the heat index inside of the prison was roughly 150 degrees for at least four hours in a row, according to the Houston Press
. Ellison says that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has been "deliberately indifferent" to responding to heat risks.
TDCJ defended its position that installing air conditioning units is too costly. The department's estimates for installation fell between $22 million to $120 million while the inmates' experts estimated it would cost $450,000. The cost expectations vary depending on the kind of air conditioning unit and the level of compliance with building codes. Plaintiff attorney Mike Singley told the Houston Press that the TDCJ's estimations are plausible for purchasing "gold-plated Rolls Royce, diamond-dust-on-top" air conditioning units and meeting every building code, both required and suggested.
According to the TDCJ, installing air conditioning units isn't only costly but also isn't necessary because of precautionary measures the prisons have in place, such as unlimited ice water, personal fans, access to common areas that have air conditioning, and wellness checkups for at-risk inmates.
Attorney General Ken Paxton agreed with TDCJ saying in a statement that he's disappointed with the ruling that will require heat-sensitive inmates to have air conditioning in their rooms. He added that the state will appeal the temporary ruling, which will expire in 90 days, according to the Texas Tribune.
"The judge's ruling downplays the substantial precautions TDCJ already has in place to protect inmates from the summer heat," Paxton said in a written statement
Paxton's talking about TDCJ's "respite" locations, or common areas that have access to air conditioning. But they aren't cutting it, according to the testimonies of the Pack Unit plaintiffs. Like 63-year-old Jackie Brannum, who suffers from several illnesses and requires eight medications, all of which are drugs that don't mix well with high body temperatures.
Brannum also uses a walker because of a pinched nerve that makes it difficult for him to move. He says that the respite locations are often not accessible nor comfortable for him.
In one occasion, Brannum was forced to stand with his nose against the wall in the respite area, despite his mobility impairment. He's also had to move from one respite area to the next because of the rooms being at maximum capacity. According to his testimony, Pack Unit guards have told Brannum that he has to submit to rectal temperature readings in order to qualify to stay in the air-conditioned rooms.
Back in 2016, the courts also ruled
that the ice water given to Pack Unit inmates was inadequate, since the water contained between 2 and 4.5 times the amount of arsenic permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency. Arsenic in water can can have short range effects, such as nausea and vomiting — and can increase peoples' risk of skin, bladder and lung cancer. The court ruled that the prison was required to provide water that complied with the EPA's standards.
Both the water standard ruling and Wednesday's ruling that at-risk inmates need access to air-conditioned rooms only apply to the Pack Unit prison and are temporary. Jeffery Edward, one of the inmates' lawyers, said that he thinks the reasoning behind the ruling could potentially affect all state prisons.
Edward says that he and the Texas Civil Rights Project decided to file a lawsuit when, "it became painfully clear, that from a systemic standpoint, we needed to challenge the system and shine a spotlight on the dangerous situation in Texas prisons." Edward added that he's disappointed that it took a class action lawsuit to make the safety changes. "It's disappointing to me, as a Texan, that TCDJ absolutely refuses to protect its inmates."
Texas Civil Rights Project staff attorney Wallis Nader said that his organization and Edward's Law will ensure that the court's rulings are enforced.
"All Texans, regardless of whether they are incarcerated, deserve dignity and respect," Nader said
. "It's up to everyone in Texas to shine light on our broken criminal justice system, particularly the inhumane conditions faced by thousands of prisoners every day."