Texas

Texas Prison Officials Violated A Judge’s Order To Provide Inmates With Air Conditioning. Now Prisoners’ Lawyers Get To Investigate.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison said the lawyers can further probe the Texas prison agency’s violations of a court order to provide air conditioning for some inmates — and agency officials’ false claims that they were in compliance.

About 75% of Texas’ more than 100 prison facilities don’t have air conditioning in all housing areas.

A federal judge is allowing prisoners' attorneys to dig deeper and find out who is responsible for the Texas prison system's violation of a court order requiring that some inmates be housed in air conditioning.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison on Wednesday ruled in a lengthy lawsuit over prison heat conditions that inmates' attorneys can further investigate the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's failures this summer to provide air-conditioning for inmates protected by the suit— and agency officials' previous denials of such failures.

This year’s violations were presented to Ellison after the department in 2018 settled the lawsuit and agreed to air condition one prison and provide inmates who had been housed in it with cooled beds even if they were moved to another unit. That settlement followed Ellison’s ruling that keeping vulnerable inmates in sweltering temperatures was cruel and unusual punishment.

"There is no dispute that Defendants violated the terms of the settlement agreement," Ellison wrote in his ruling. "Additionally, Defendants have also admitted that they had previously made several serious misrepresentations to both [the inmates' attorneys] and this Court."

The judge did not yet decide whether he would hold TDCJ officials in contempt for the violations and declined to issue any fines for now. But the anger and exasperation Ellison often exhibited in his courtroom over prison officials’ noncompliance with the settlement order and misrepresentation of prison conditions were still visible in his writing.

Not only did the state endanger inmates' lives, he said, but it also prevented the discovery of the danger. Given the agency's history of violations in this lawsuit and the inaccurate information officials presented to the court, Ellison wrote that the prison agency’s "promises that they will do better without intervention by this Court fall flat."

The ruling sets the scene for further action in a years’ long lawsuit that originated at the William Pack prison near College Station. In 2014, several inmates at the prison sued the department for keeping them in uncooled housing where temperatures routinely surpass 100 degrees. The Pack prison was one of about 75 Texas prison facilities that didn’t have air conditioning in housing areas at the time.

In 2017, Ellison ordered medically-vulnerable inmates at the prison to be placed in air conditioned beds, and the next year, TDCJ and the inmates' lawyers settled.

Ellison praised the agency for the settlement, but that sentiment disappeared this summer, when the judge threatened to jail TDCJ officials for potentially deadly violations of the order.

In July, the inmates' attorneys were told by their clients that two prisons housing dozens of prisoners covered by the settlement had temperatures that exceeded what the court order allowed. The prisons are air-conditioned, but they claimed the cooling units weren't working. In one prison, TDCJ officials failed to report faulty cooling equipment to the attorneys, as the settlement requires, the ruling states. In the other, the Le Blanc prison in Beaumont, the agency falsely told the lawyers that temperatures were adequately cool.

When the lawyers continued to receive complaints from prisoners, they asked to inspect the unit, but TDCJ lawyers attempted to reschedule the inspection at the last minute. They said that the warden was out due to a family emergency and that senior TDCJ officials were out of town at a conference.

Both of those things were false, the agency has since admitted. A TDCJ lawyer said in September court hearings that the warden's daughter had a non-emergency doctor's appointment, and the conference had already ended.

In August, Ellison held an emergency hearing and demanded the inspection take place as scheduled, and it was discovered that temperatures were much higher than the 88 degree heat index, which accounts for humidity as well, that is the maximum temperature allowed by the settlement.

The inmates' lawyers asked Ellison the next month to issue court sanctions for the violations, including hefty fines on the department. They claimed TDCJ officials lied to try to cover up the high temperatures and dangerous conditions and withheld information.

There have since been multiple hearings, where Ellison has slammed the agency's conduct and ordered that the inmates be immediately placed in cooled housing. The agency's executive director and a defendant in the lawsuit, Bryan Collier, has also appeared in the courtroom for questioning.

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