With the heat index in Texas already approaching 110 degrees Fahrenheit, a federal judge certified a class action for over 1,400 inmates who want the state to install air conditioning to prevent prisoner heat-stroke deaths.
Ten Texas inmates died from heat stroke in 2011, succumbing to a heat wave in which eight Texas cities broke records for consecutive days in triple digits.
This summer, which officially begins on Monday, could be every bit as hazardous as temperatures in southeast Texas have already reached levels that prompted the National Weather Service to issue a heat advisory from Thursday through Saturday.
The Wallace Pack Unit is a minimum-security prison in Navasota that houses disabled, sick and elderly prisoners serving sentences for nonviolent crimes. Navasota is 80 miles northwest of Houston.
The heat index, a combination of temperature and humidity, will be as high as 104 degrees Fahrenheit in Navasota on Friday, according to the National Weather Service.
Seven Pack Unit inmates sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, its executive director Brad Livingston and Pack Unit Warden Roberto Herrera in June 2014, seeking class certification and an injunction forcing prison officials to “maintain a heat index of 88 degrees or lower inside each of the Pack Unit’s housing areas.”
The prisoners claim the unit’s lack of air conditioning violates their Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment and their Fourteenth Amendment equal-protection rights.
Lead plaintiff David Bailey is incarcerated in Navasota for a drug crime and is expected to be released in 2020, according to his class action.
Bailey is in his 50s and suffers tremors, seizures and muscle cramps from a brain injury.
He takes the anti-tremor medicine benztropine, which is prescribed to those with Parkinson’s disease, and he is at particular risk for heat stroke because the drug decreases the body’s ability to sweat, according to the lawsuit.
On summer days, the prison becomes oppressively hot, Bailey says. Its metal exterior walls trap heat like a parked car, and metal tables in the inmate dorms get so heated that prisoners have to lay towels on them to rest their elbows on. Inmates often sleep on the floor because it’s somewhat cooler than their metal bunks, he adds.
“The windows in some of the inmate dormitories, including the one plaintiff Bailey is housed in, are sealed shut. In the dorms where the windows do open, the temperature is not cooler when the windows are open in the summer,” the lawsuit states.
In a hearing earlier this month before U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison, the state called public health expert Dr. Dean Rieger to testify about the Texas prison system’s heat-mitigation protocol.
The former medical director for the Indiana Department of Corrections, Rieger now works for Correct Care Solutions, a private company that provides health care for many state prisons.
Rieger testified on June 2 in Ellison’s Houston courtroom, days after he visited the Pack Unit for Texas, which is paying him $350 per hour for his expert witness services.
He said Texas now gives Pack Unit inmates access to ice water and cool showers, lets them wear shorts and opt out of outdoor work assignments, measures he considers adequate to keep their core body temperatures stable.
“My opinion is that they’re pretty effective at the Pack Unit to mitigate the risk of heat-stress injury,” Rieger told state attorney Philip Boyd.
Rieger said the prison also has a few dozen “respite areas” — air-conditioned spaces, like the barber shop and craft workshop — where inmates can go whenever they need to cool down, citing declarations from several of the class-action plaintiffs.
He testified that the prison staff has put up posters throughout the unit to notify inmates about these cooling areas.
Rieger admitted on cross-examination by plaintiffs’ attorney Jeff Edwards, however, that he read those declarations weeks ago and Edwards prodded at his memory.
Edwards, 6-foot-5-inches tall with a distinctive head of salt-and-pepper hair, contradicted Rieger’s testimony, with an excerpt from the Dec. 18, 2015, declaration of plaintiff Jackie Brannum.
“I don’t have [the] ability to sit in an air-conditioned space whenever I feel I need it…On days of the week that the craft shop isn’t opened I can’t go there and get air conditioning,” Brannum wrote, as recited by Edwards.
Brannum, 61, has hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, schizoaffective disorder, and chronic pain, according to the case record.
Edwards bolstered Brannum’s account with another declaration from Pack Unit inmate and class plaintiff Fred Wallace.
“I was standing outside commissary and felt like I was going to pass out. I asked a guard if I could go to barber shop…The guard said ‘No.’ I felt so sick that I sat down on the floor. Only when the guard returned 15 minutes later and said, ‘You look like you’re going to die’ did he allow me to enter the barber shop,” Wallace stated, and Edwards read to the court.
Wallace, 72, is clinically obese and depressed and has high blood pressure, the case record states.
The inmates persuaded Ellison to let the class action proceed on three levels.
With a June 14 order, the judge certified a general class of all current and future Pack Unit inmates.
He also authorized a “heat-sensitive” subclass for Pack Unit inmates who are suffering from obesity, diabetes and high-blood pressure, among other ailments, are taking drugs that interfere with their bodies’ cooling mechanisms, or are over 65 years old.
In addition, Ellison certified a “disability” subclass of Pack Unit inmates who are at “an increased risk of heat-related illness, injury, or death due to their disability or any medical treatment necessary to treat their disability.”
The subclasses include future Pack Unit inmates.