After $7 million legal fight over air conditioning, Texas prison system touts new heat safety policies

Inmates shuffle past fans in the Darrington prison’s main hallway on a hot July day. Jolie McCullough / The Texas Tribune

As temperatures soared over 100 degrees in most of the state this week, ongoing concerns over the safety of inmates and guards in Texas prisons — almost 75 percent of which do not have air conditioning in housing areas — have resurfaced.

During the devastating statewide heat wave in 2011, at least 10 inmates died of heat stroke in Texas prisons within a two-month span. Four heat-related illnesses — two prisoners and two guards who have since fully-recovered — had been reported since temperatures began to spike on Friday, a prison spokesman said Wednesday afternoon. This year, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has touted new efforts to combat the stifling conditions, including revised heat protocols and a new incident command system to ensure policies are being followed.

But the policy changes didn’t come cheap — or without resistance. Until recently, the state was embroiled in a years-long lawsuit over installing air conditioning in the housing area of one Texas prison. Though the state settled the lawsuit earlier this year and air conditioning is now in place at the unit, the legal fees in the suit total more than $7 million.

The costs will only continue to rise as the department now determines the price tag for permanently installing air conditioning at the unit. A temporary solution — which has already cost $1 million, not counting increased electricity charges — is in place for this summer and next, but the Legislature needs to sign off on a permanent solution.

The estimates for that solution have varied drastically, with a state expert citing a $20 million figure during a 2017 court hearing and the plaintiffs quoting about $450,000.

Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin with expertise in prison conditions, believes that money spent on the lawsuit was wasted since legal standards on keeping inmates in safe temperatures, especially the elderly or those with medical conditions, are pretty clear.

“The easiest, smartest and most humane thing to do is to simply move ahead with making the necessary changes in the facilities rather than spending their time trying to fight a battle,” she said.

‘Cruel and unusual’
The lawsuit was filed by several inmates at the Wallace Pack prison southeast of College Station in 2014. They claimed, and the judge agreed, that keeping them in temperatures that routinely surpassed 100 degrees was cruel and unusual punishment.

In defense of the state prison system, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said last summer that expensive air conditioning systems were unnecessary and TDCJ’s existing precautions against heat — like providing fans and ice water — were adequate.

But in the settlement, Texas ultimately agreed to keep temperatures at the Pack prison at or below 88 degrees. The agreement was unexpected and applauded by advocates and the judge, who claimed he “never dreamt we’d get the Pack Unit air-conditioned.”

Still, the Texas Attorney General’s Office spent nearly $2.7 million representing the prison system in the last four years, according to billing records obtained by The Texas Tribune. And the state agreed in the settlement to pay the inmates’ attorneys another $4.5 million.

On top of that, the department spent more than $560,000 through September to comply with a temporary ruling last summer that ordered the state to place inmates deemed medically vulnerable, including the elderly and those with heart disease, in air-conditioned housing, according to court records.

The department temporarily moved about 1,000 vulnerable inmates at the Pack Unit to air-conditioned prisons throughout the state as part of the order. The cost given does not include moving the inmates back to Pack after a settlement was reached.

A cooler future?

The lawsuit and settlement focus solely on the Pack Unit, but they have put increased attention on the system statewide.

State Rep. James White, a Republican from Hillister and chairman of the House Corrections Committee, said he thinks the state should continue work to cool prisons throughout the state. He knows cost is a concern, but he said other cooling systems aside from central air may be able to be implemented, and the state is charged with keeping prisoners safe and allowing them to be rehabilitated.

“This has always been an issue … it’s just that now we’ve gotten a lawsuit and some other data points that have got us thinking about this more thoughtfully and in different ways,” he said.

Using the identifiers for medically vulnerable inmates included in the lawsuit, TDCJ has also started the process of moving the most at-risk inmates into air-conditioned units systemwide, said Jeremy Desel, a spokesman for the agency.

“What we’re doing is working,” he said.

But skepticism among advocates remains as inmates describe the sweltering conditions inside Texas prisons. Jennifer Erschabek, executive director of the Texas Inmate Families Association, said she believes the number of heat-related illnesses is probably higher than what is being reported, but that she has seen a difference systemwide in combating the heat.

“I think they do have the lawsuit on their minds, and they want to prevent any additional deaths, so I think they’re working really hard,” she said. “The problem it seems to me is … not all of the employees’ hearts are into it, so there’s not as much care and diligence to get the work done.”

She also added there are logistical problems: With short staffing at many units, it’s hard to get inmates into cool-down showers or provide water as frequently as needed.

Not all family members have seen changes.

Natalie Harvey, part of a new group that advocates for air conditioning in Texas prisons, said Tuesday that inmates at her son’s prison and others across the state still aren’t getting enough water, aren’t receiving any ice, and aren’t being taken to air-conditioned areas or showers to get any relief, despite the new protocols.

“Now that the federal court set the stage with the Wallace Pack unit, the Texas legislators better be prepared to not only hear the voices of the inmates who are unconstitutionally suffering, but the voices of the families as well,” she said. “And we are the ones who vote.”