In what the Houston Chronicle calls “a searing 100-page rebuke of the Texas prison system,” a federal judge ordered the state to provide air-conditioned living quarters for elderly, disabled and other heat-sensitive inmates at the Pack Unit prison northwest of Houston. The ruling — which chastises prison officials for “obstruction” and “deliberate indifference” to inmate suffering — gives the state 15 days to draft a plan to ensure that 475 vulnerable inmates have living units cooled to no more than 88 degrees and that 1,000 others have easy access to indoor respite areas. The prison must develop a heat-wave policy to prevent further injuries and install insect-proof window screens. U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison ‘s ruling does not require air conditioning throughout the prison, but suggests staff could adjust housing assignments to make sure inmates with health problems sleep in cooled dormitories.
Ellison, who spent five hours at the prison in 2014 to feel the heat for himself, cited Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s writing on Siberian prison conditions. “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” Ellison wrote. Rejecting the argument that air conditioning wasn’t available to inmates in past generations, he said, “No one suggests that inmates should be denied up-to-date medical and psychiatric care, or that they should be denied access to radio or television, or that construction of prison facilities should not use modern building materials. The treatment of prisoners must necessarily evolve as society evolves.” The state vowed to appeal to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “Texas taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars to pay for expensive prison air conditioning systems, which are unnecessary and not constitutionally mandated,” said Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Wallis Nader of the Texas Civil Rights Project said “human beings have been baked inside Texas prisons.”