By JUAN A. LOZANO Associated Press
HOUSTON (AP) — The head of Texas’ prison system acknowledged during a court hearing Tuesday that state officials violated the settlement of a lawsuit over oppressive heat faced by some prisoners.
Bryan Collier, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, testified that mistakes were made by his agency as some inmates were put in dangerous conditions but that officials were working to fix the problems, including installing equipment at prison facilities that will monitor temperatures.
The inmates’ attorneys said prison officials have repeatedly violated the settlement, with the prisoners complaining they felt like they were “roasting.”
“Anytime there has been an issue, we’ve tried to address anything about that issue, so it doesn’t occur again,” Collier told U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison.
But during the hearing, Ellison was visibly frustrated by the prison agency, calling the department’s actions “a perversion” of the settlement.
“Unfortunately, the settlement agreement which we all felt proud of, has not been complied with,” Ellison said.
The judge was expected to issue a ruling at a later date on whether to sanction or fine officials.
In 2018, Ellison approved a settlement over a lawsuit filed by a group of inmates who argued the oppressive heat at the Wallace Pack Unit, about 95 miles northwest of Houston, was unconstitutionally cruel punishment.
Ellison had previously said the nation’s largest prison system was “deliberately indifferent” to the heat risks and subjected inmates at the Pack Unit to “a substantial risk of serious injury or death.” He ordered the agency to come up with a plan to keep the heat index, the combination of temperature and humidity, no higher than 88 degrees Fahrenheit at the Pack Unit.
The settlement impacted about 1,300 inmates at the Pack Unit, which got 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.
Tuesday’s hearing focused mainly on the hot temperatures some of the Pack inmates who had been transferred to another prison — the LeBlanc Unit in Southeast Texas — felt in July and August after their air conditioning system broke down.
Jeff Edwards, an attorney for the inmates, alleged prison officials lied about fixing the air conditioning system and delayed efforts to conduct inspections.
Collier testified that officials should have installed equipment to monitor the temperatures at the LeBlanc unit to ensure prisoners are not living in dangerous conditions.
Officials plan to install permanent equipment that will monitor the temperature and heat index at all facilities where inmates from the Pack Unit have been transferred to, Collier said. Temporary monitoring equipment has already been set up.
While most of the 1,300 inmates that were part of the lawsuit live at the Pack Unit, 77 others live at seven other prison facilities.
Collier said the prison agency has identified 13,000 inmates in the prison system that are heat vulnerable and it has already put 8,000 of them in air-conditioned beds. The remaining 5,000 will be placed in air-conditioned beds in 12 to 24 months.
“I’m not sure we’ve seen the impetus toward change. I hope we have,” Judge Ellison said.
So far this year, there have been more than 50 heat-related incidents at Texas prison units, 23 cases involving prisoners and 32 employee cases, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. None of those cases required any type of critical medical care.