In a motion Thursday, the prisoners' lawyers asked the judge to hold prison officials in contempt and issue fines. They also accused the agency of hiding multiple instances of noncompliance with the court order.
“Enough is enough,” the court filing begins.
The lawyers representing inmates in the long and costly legal battle over a lack of air conditioning in Texas prisons claimed in a court filing Thursday the Texas Department of Criminal Justice continues to jeopardize the lives of some of the nearly 900 inmates a judge ruled must be kept in cool temperatures. And they said the department has violated a lawsuit settlement by repeatedly providing false information to the lawyers about broken air conditioners and stifling temperatures in units housing those prisoners.
In the motion, the lead lawyer for the inmates who sued the state asked a federal judge to find TDCJ in contempt for its failure to keep the inmates named in the class-action lawsuit in cooled housing. Attorney Jeff Edwards also asked a federal court judge to fine the department $150 per day for each of the prisoners kept in what the judge has ruled are unconstitutionally hot temperatures.
U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison, who has slammed the department for how it has handled inmate housing and heat restrictions in the past, quickly scheduled a hearing on the issue for Friday afternoon in Houston.
“TDCJ continues to flout its obligations, and refuses — despite telling the Court otherwise — to cooperate,” Edwards wrote in his motion.
A spokesman for TDCJ said Thursday that the department's office of general counsel was reviewing the filing with the Texas Attorney General's Office.
The legal drama stems from a lawsuit filed in 2014 by several inmates housed at the Wallace Pack prison near College Station. They claimed, and Ellison later agreed, that keeping them in temperatures that routinely surpassed 100 degrees was cruel and unusual punishment. Ellison also ruled TDCJ had been deliberately indifferent to the potential harm excessive heat could cause to prisoners.
Nearly 75% of Texas' more than 100 prison facilities do not have air conditioning in inmate housing areas, and the department has reported nearly two dozen heat-related deaths since 1998. At least one other death was reported to be caused by heat last year, though the department has contested that finding and said a final autopsy is still pending. As of Aug. 28, TDCJ reported 56 heat-related illnesses in 2019 for prisoners and employees. The spokesman, Jeremy Desel, said that number is down significantly from last year, when there were 71 incidents.
After a yearslong battle, Texas ultimately moved to settle the lawsuit in February 2018, agreeing to keep the heat index — which also accounts for humidity — at the Pack prison at or below 88 degrees. The settlement also ordered all inmates who were housed at the prison during the lawsuit to be kept in housing with the same temperature restrictions, regardless of whether they were moved to other facilities. The temperature restrictions did not extend to the entire prison system, though the department agreed to move the most vulnerable inmates into cooled beds and implement new policies to keep inmates and prison officers safe in excessive heat.
Ellison at the time applauded the department and inmate attorneys for the settlement, saying he “never dreamt we’d get the Pack Unit air-conditioned.” The prison has had temporary air conditioning installed for two years, and funds have been approved to install a permanent cooling system.
But since then, the inmates’ attorneys have claimed TDCJ violated the order multiple times by having the prisoners in hot cells and dorms. They said the department did not notify the attorneys multiple times over the last two years when air conditioners malfunctioned for more than 24 hours, as is required by the settlement order. And prisoners told the lawyers the department was not providing other services to combat the heat during those times, like ice water, cold showers or limited access to cooled areas, according to Thursday’s motion.
“For perhaps now obvious reasons, TDCJ never notified [the lawyers] of hot indoor temperatures at any of the above prisons, not even long after the 24-hour grace period had passed,” Edwards wrote. “Instead, [the lawyers] only learned about the problems through letters from class members (typically sent days earlier) and frantic phone calls from their family members.”
Last month, Ellison held two emergency hearings within two days after the lawyers’ claimed the prison department was keeping 37 inmates who were class members in the lawsuit in uncooled housing. The lawyers also claimed TDCJ officials repeatedly “misrepresented” and hid issues with the housing conditions of class members.
After receiving heat complaints from inmates covered by the settlement at a Beaumont prison, the attorneys reached out to TDCJ and asked for temperature logs. The LeBlanc prison is cooled, and TDCJ officials told the lawyers there had been minor problems with the system, but they had been resolved within hours, according to the filing. The cooling system was functioning properly, keeping temperatures below 85 degrees, the official said. Internal temperature logs were not provided, and TDCJ has said such documentation is only required for the Pack unit under the settlement and it does not record temperatures at other facilities. (A legislative measure this year to require TDCJ to report internally recorded temperatures at all prisons was whittled down to require reports of heat complaints, not keep logs.)
Prisoners continued to claim the air conditioning was broken, however, and the lawyers were able to secure a site inspection — after Ellison’s intervention — last month. The heat indices were above 88 degrees in all the housing areas, according to a motion at the time, and one area’s heat index was above 100 degrees. The inmates said they felt “dizzy” and had “trouble breathing.”
A day after the site visit to LeBlanc, Ellison called for TDCJ to immediately move the class members to truly air-conditioned units, saying TDCJ officials showed “negligible interest” in addressing the problem. Although he limited his order to the class members of the lawsuit, he went further in his opinion.
“The heat conditions are so severe that TDCJ should, on its own initiative, have taken immediate steps to redress these conditions as they affect all of the approximately 1200 inmates in the LeBlanc Unit,” he wrote in his order.
After the hearing last month, prison spokesman Jeremy Desel told the Houston Chronicle that "TDCJ continues to work diligently to follow all aspects of the Pack Unit settlement."
In Thursday’s motion, Edwards requested that Ellison hold a hearing to determine the scope of TDCJ’s settlement violations, require more accountability documents, and weigh issuing sanctions against the department, in the form of payment to the inmates and attorney fees. The state had spent more than $7 million on the lawsuit at the time of the settlement in 2018.
Aside from the $150 a day for each inmate in the lawsuit kept in heat indices above 88 degrees, Edwards proposed a harsher fine structure for the future to encourage compliance with the settlement.