Lawsuit Prompts New Heating Policies in Texas Corrections

By Roxanne Squires

GRIMES COUNTY, Texas – The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has started their efforts toward a new implementation of heat safety policies along with the installment of air-cooling systems in their Wallace Pack Unit, following a $7 million lawsuit.

In 2014, several inmates at the Wallace Pack Facility sued the TDCJ over inhumane temperature conditions, noting the nearly two dozen inmates who died from heat stroke over the last 20 years. In response, the TDCJ has put forward new measures, including correcting heat protocols and a new incident command system, to guarantee policies are being followed.

Nearly 75 percent of Texas’ 100-plus correctional facilities do not hold a cooling system while units regularly exceed 100 degrees – reinforcing the inmates and their representation’s argument that these conditions are by definition, “cruel and unusual punishment.” This settled the transfer of more than 1,000 susceptible prisoners into 11 different air-conditioned units, in lieu of installing air conditioning at the facilities’ Pack Unit, according to the Texas Tribune.

Jeff Edwards, the attorney of the inmates, said the department and plaintiffs have reached an agreement to install an interim air conditioning system for the upcoming summer while permanent units are scheduled to be integrated into the facility by May 2020.

The department and plaintiffs will be finalizing the details of the agreement over the upcoming weeks and they will need to be approved in federal court, which the U.S. District Judge, Keith Ellison, is hopeful will be done. Overall, this agreement could bring a larger impact to the department, including the examination of several wrongful deaths of inmates due to heat stroke.

According to the TDCJ Twitter page, the TDCJ’s Incident Command System protocols are in effect due to these heat conditions. Measures, such as extra ice water, areas of respite, cold showers, reduced or eliminated outdoor work, and 24/7 monitoring teams, are taken to maintain safe conditions for offenders and staff.