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Settlement Near In Prison Heat Lawsuit

A class action lawsuit over heat in a Texas prison is likely to be settled after a federal court hearing Tuesday.

Wallace Pack Unit Prison
The Wallace Pack Unit, located about 70 northwest of Houston, near Navasota.

A class action lawsuit over heat in a Texas prison is likely to be settled after a federal court hearing Tuesday.

Houston Chronicle reporter Gabrielle Banks tells Houston Matters the terms of the settlement would require temporary air conditioning units installed at the Wallace Pack Unit near Navasota be replaced by permanent units by May 2020, pending legislative approval. The settlement also resolves several wrongful death and wrongful injury lawsuits and awards $4.5 million to an Austin law firm for trying the case.

The Chronicle also learned that Bryan Collier, the executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, has proposed creating 26 new definitions of at-risk inmates who are especially susceptible to extreme heat — such as those age 65 or older, or those with diabetes or heart conditions.

The original class action lawsuit, filed in 2014, claimed hot conditions at the low-security, 1,400-bed prison of mostly geriatric inmates violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Tuesday’s proceeding is merely a fairness hearing, where any of the parties in the class action who had a complaint could make a statement in court. Since those parties are prison inmates, Banks says it could make for a chaotic day in court as they make statements via phone.

Banks learned some other measures the prison system is taking that aren’t part of the settlement, including plans to relocate at-risk prisoners at 75 uncooled units to 29 prisons already equipped with air conditioning. Such a move could possibly be an effort to stave off future lawsuits from other prisoners, she said.

The Texas prison system intends to make use of the 32,000 beds it already has in air conditioned cell blocks but might need additional fencing and other equipment to secure violent offenders. Completing such transfers could take years but would be cheaper than installing air conditioning to old prisons.

Banks researched how many other states provide air conditioning for their inmates and how that compares to Texas. She found only five states that provide air conditioning to all state prisoners, while 21 others offer it to at least half their prisoners. Texas is among six states in the South that do not provide cooling for the majority of their state inmates.

Banks says officials acknowledge 22 prisoners died from extreme indoor heat over 14 years in prisons from South Texas to Dallas. However, some human rights and health experts who visited Texas prisons estimated the actual number is much higher.

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Michael Hagerty

Michael Hagerty

Senior Producer, Houston Matters

Michael Hagerty is the Senior Producer for Houston Matters. He has a degree in journalism from Abilene Christian University and has served as news director for NPR and PBS stations around Texas and The West, including: KUNR-FM in Reno, Nev.; KNPB-TV in Reno, Nev.; and KWBU-TV/FM in Waco, Texas. He...

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