Lawsuit requires Texas prison to add air conditioning

Air conditioning is slated to be installed in the Wallace Pack Unit by May 1, 2020

JOHN AUSTIN, CNHI State Reporter via AP

AUSTIN — A Texas prison will install permanent air conditioning as the result of a recently settled federal lawsuit, but despite the agreement, thousands of state inmates are still feeling the heat.

Under terms of a settlement finalized earlier this month, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will install permanent air conditioning in the Wallace Pack Unit, northwest of Houston, by May 1, 2020.

“The extreme, suffocating heat in Texas prisons that has claimed the lives of at least 14 inmates since 2007 does not seem to have an end in sight as both Texas and the United States federal government have failed to take action,” according to a report by the University of Texas School of Law Human Rights Clinic. “The TDCJ’s demonstrated lack of care for its over 150,000 inmates’ medical needs … violates numerous domestic and international standards, most notably the human right to health, and further demonstrates the United States’ violation of international standards protecting inmates’ rights.”

Also, according to the UT report, “the Texas Commission on Jail Standards originally issued its mandate requiring air conditioning in county jails in 1978, at least a decade before most TDCJ prisons had even been built, meaning that heat-trapping TDCJ prison units were being built concurrently with air conditioned county jails within the state.” Under settlement terms, “subject to legislative approval,” the air conditioning “will keep the heat index at 88 degrees Fahrenheit or less in those housing areas.”

For decades, people have been getting sick, or even dying, as a result of inhumane prison conditions at TDCJ”

— Natalia Cornelio, TCRP criminal justice director

The agreement also requires TDJC to take appropriate precautions for inmates in 26 “heat-sensitive” classifications, “within our current infrastructure for those who are at high risk, minimizing the likelihood of future litigation,” according to the agency’s statement. “When offenders are identified to be at the highest risk level, they will be transferred to existing facilities that have air conditioning.” To accomplish this, some units will need additional infrastructure security measures to accommodate a range of offender classification levels.”

The agreement calls for temporarily air conditioning Pack prisoners from April 15 through Oct.15 in 2018 and 2019.

The TDJC argued that it was meeting constitutional standards at Pack by opening windows, air-conditioning respite areas, and providing ice water, showers, fans and a relaxed dress code.

In a statement issued in response to an earlier ruling in the case, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said the called-for measures were “unnecessary.”

Paxton, in the same statement, said retrofitting the Pack Unit with air conditioning could cost $20 million.

However, a TDJC spokesman said in a Tuesday email last week that the agency has no estimated cost for installing Pack air conditioning under the settlement terms.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees and expenses were set at $4.5 million under the settlement.

The Texas Civil Rights Project, co-counsel in the lawsuit, hailed the agreement.

“For decades, people have been getting sick, or even dying, as a result of inhumane prison conditions at TDCJ,” said Natalia Cornelio, TCRP criminal justice director. “Thousands of people, including prisoners, guards, staff, visitors and attorneys, will benefit from these changes in the Wallace Pack Unit; changes we expect will reverberate to every prison in our state.”

(Visited 60 times, 1 visits today)