Just 71 miles northwest of Houston, Texas, just outside the city of Navasota, sits the Wallace Pack Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. For those unfamiliar with the region, it gets relatively hot down there.
Regarding the heat experienced by those incarcerated at the unit, a federal judge is threatening to put Texas prison officials to the same ‘oppressive’ conditions as the inmates that are housed there.
“It seems the most obvious sanction is pretty straightforward,” U.S. District (Houston) Judge Keith Ellison said during an emergency hearing Friday, according to the Texas Tribune. “We ought to have prison officials in prison at the same temperature.”
Ellison debated imposing financial and other sanctions to ensure officials would comply with court order, recognizing that the burden of the financial sanctions would fall on the taxpayers rather than the officials.
“Shouldn’t we have as a sanction, prison officials in the cells dealing with the same temperatures as the prisoners?” the judge asked Assistant Attorney General Leah O’Leary, representing the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).
He said the threat should come as a wakeup call.
“I thought the last hearing and the last order would be sufficient to get people’s attention,” he said, referring to emergency action taken last month after reports of nearly 40 inmates housed with a long-broken air conditioner. “What can I do to get the state’s attention?”
According to the Texas Tribune, O’Leary claimed the department was in the process of moving many of the inmates that were part of the lawsuit and no longer at the Pack Unit, back to that prison.
She claims that air conditioning has since been installed and a temperature reporting system is in place. For the 81 prisoners who are not at the Pack Unit, the department is planning to install thermometers at their units to be able to record and ensure that the heat index (which also includes humidity) stays at or below 88°, as is required by the settlement order.
She assured Ellison that his idea would not be necessary and that the state was working to fix the problem, adding: “You have our attention.”
“I’m afraid I don’t,” replied Ellison.
Jeff Edwards, the prisoner’s attorney, reminded the judge that should he decide to hold officials in contempt of court, they would most likely be held at an air-conditioned federal detention center.
The hearing was the simply the latest move in a five-year legal battle over the heat at this particular unit.
In 2017, This same judge ruled that the prison’s lack of air conditioning, considering the Texas summer heat, “cruel and unusual” punishment. He further ruled that the TDCJ had intentionally shown no concern regarding the health hazards associated with the heat.
The settlement impacted about 1,300 inmates at the Pack Unit, which according to O’Leary, received air conditioning and temperature monitoring equipment. Under the settlement, if any of these 1,300 inmates were transferred to other prisons, they would still be subject to the conditions of the settlement at their new facilities.
At Friday’s hearing, Edwards accused state prison officials of failing to adequately fix problems at the Pack Unit and of not monitoring temperatures and fixing air conditioning problems at various prison facilities some of the 1,300 inmates have been moved to since the lawsuit was settled last year.
Inmates from the Pack Unit who had been transferred to the Stiles Unit in Southeast Texas reported in July that the air conditioning was not working and the heat made them feel “disoriented,” ″nauseous” and like they were on the verge of “passing out,” according to court documents filed this week.
Ellison announced that he would delay a decision on possible sanctions until he heard from officials, including prison wardens, at a hearing to be held later today. Ellison said that while the settlement only applies to the Pack unit, he believes all Texas prisons should have air conditioning.
It is also worth noting that information previously presented to the court identified that 22 Texas inmates have died of heat stroke since 1998, although none of those deaths were at the Pack Unit.
Approximately 190 miles to the northeast of Houston, lies Fort Polk, Louisiana. Much like Navasota, Texas, Fort Polk experiences extreme heat from June through August. As a comparison, the average summer heat index for the Pack Unit is 118.6°. The average for Fort Polk during the same three-month swing, 121.9.
So, why are the heat index differences between Navasota and Fort Polk relevant?
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Much of the inmate population at the Pack Unit are a ‘G3’ custody level. There are 5 ‘G’ levels in Texas. The Department of Criminal Justice defines that as:
General population Level 3 (G3) refers to prison offenders who may live in dorms or cells inside the main building of the unit. G3 offenders are ineligible to live in dorms outside the main building of a unit, inside the security fence. G3 offenders shall be generally assigned to field force and secure jobs inside the perimeter as designated by the warden. They may work outside the security fence under direct armed supervision. State jail offenders are not assigned to level 3 custody as this custody is reserved for offenders serving sentences of 50 years or greater.
Fort Polk is home to the United States Army Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC). Members of all our military branches conduct training there in advance of deployments to extreme hot-weather environments around the globe. JRTC, or ‘the box’ as it is affectionately referred to, is a vast training area were units spend between 4 and 8 weeks. There are no hotels. They do not stay in air-conditioned dorms.
Our troops sleep on cots in large canvas tents. Many times, the closest thing to ventilation they have in their living environment is a breeze that might come through when they have the window flaps open.
They also conduct their training while wearing a full compliment of combat equipment. For some units, that may consist of 50 to 100 lbs. of body worn gear that they always have on them while they are on duty. In ‘the box,’ a duty day is between 12-18 hours.
Even when they are off-duty sleeping, the enemy combatant role players, known has opposition forces (OpFor), often attack during these off-hours. This sends everyone back into gear to go defend their area of operations. It may be several more hours before they receive the “all-clear” notification and get to head back to their cot for some sleep.
Our soldiers live and train in extreme and adverse conditions. Yet, a federal judge has determined that criminal offenders, many of whom are serving 50 years to life sentences, are living in cruel and unusual conditions.
As someone who lives in this general area, I understand the concerns of living without air conditioning. The southeast Texas summers can be brutal. We have seen swings were the heat index is well above 100° for 60 consecutive days.
Health issues can be a legitimate concern, especially amongst elderly residents. However, stating that prisoners dealing with these temperatures equates to cruel and unusual conditions might be a bit of a stretch, especially when you consider that the prison staff work in the exact same environment.
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