A federal judge in Houston is expected to decide in a few weeks whether prison inmates have the right to live in cooled housing areas when the mercury rises above 90 degrees, the Houston Chronicle reports. U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison ended a two-week hearing yesterday in a lawsuit by inmates at the Wallace Pack Unit northwest of Houston, where prisoners – including the elderly and infirm – want emergency relief. There have been 22 Texas inmate indoor heat deaths since 1998.
Inmate lawyers say it was the first time a group of inmates collectively testified about their exposure to heat and what it’s like to live day-to-day in unairconditioned prison housing units. The team from Edwards Law in Austin and the Texas Civil Rights Project argued that standards of human decency dictate that inmates – especially those who take medicines that affect their bodies’ ability to fight heat, and those with diabetes, hypertension and other conditions that make them sensitive to heat – should be allowed to live in temperatures below 88 degrees. Prison administrators testified that they make every reasonable effort to protect inmates during heat waves, offering an unlimited supply of ice water, cold showers and respite areas. They told the judge that given budgetary constraints, air conditioning the entire facility is not economically feasible. A permanent fix would cost from $450,000 to $22 million plus yearly operating costs. Inmate Michael Ray Denton, 39, said he’d experienced heat illness on two occasions in his unit, where the windows don’t open. On one occasion, he became dizzy and vomited. “Honestly, my head was hurting so bad I felt like someone was sticking an ice pick in my brain,” he testified.