TEXAS VIEW: Prison A/C settlement encouraging, should be expanded to all units

By The Facts (Clute, Texas)

The state has finally reached a settlement in a class action suit brought by inmates who were being forced to endure stifling hot conditions — regularly exceeding 100 degrees — in the housing area.

Now the state will install air conditioning at the notoriously sweltering prison: the Wallace Pack Unit, southeast of College Station. The success of the suit means other inmates living and guards working in other state prisons without A/C also could see some relief on the horizon.

The agreement still needs to be approved in federal court, but U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison said he is optimistic it will move forward.

Of course, there never should have been a need to file a suit to begin with, as no human being can be constitutionally subjected to such cruel, unusual and potentially deadly conditions.

In Texas, it should be a no-brainer that A/C is not a luxury. It’s a necessity, especially during the summer months when the dangers of heat stroke are all too real. How real? In the last 20 years, almost two dozen prisoners have died from heat stroke in Texas prisons.

“It’s a big day for the inmates who suffered through those summers at the Pack Unit,” said Jeff Edwards, attorney for the prisoners. “They’re not going to be in fear of dying from heat stroke anymore.”

Bringing A/C to the College Station prison we hope will just be the beginning. According to The Texas Tribune, the state has more than 100 prisons, and almost 75 percent of them don’t have air conditioning in the areas where inmates live. That is simply unacceptable, particularly in buildings that typically lack windows or ventilation, and where sweating humans are packed in close proximity to one another.

We are fully aware inmates were sentenced to prison terms in order to be punished, surely not to enjoy luxury resorts or vacation homes. No one is suggesting that be the case. But prisoners should be able to expect not to die from a heat stroke because their living quarters are nothing more than oversized crock pots. A prison sentence shouldn’t be akin to dropping a live lobster into a roiling pot of boiling water.

Yet, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice at first fought Ellison’s ruling, and appealed the decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Attorney General Ken Paxton even said air conditioning systems in Texas prisons are “unnecessary and not constitutionally mandated.”

Paxton should say those words to the grieving families of Texans who died from heat stroke in ovens masquerading as prison cells. On that topic, the settlement also includes resolutions of several wrongful death lawsuits filed by those very families of inmates who perished in the stifling conditions.

While the settlement just covers the unit in College Station, the implications fortunately are more far-reaching, the plaintiff’s attorney points out. “Obviously, if the inmates can prevail and get much needed protection from the heat in one prison, there’s significance to that for inmates everywhere,” Edwards said.

No one expects or wants prisons to include all the comforts of home. But a basic expectation of safety and protection from cruel and unusual conditions should be the standard. It’s good to see Texas might be moving in the right direction, even though it took some legal prodding.