HOUSTON (AP) — A federal judge is ordering the state to disclose the number of heat-related deaths that have occurred since 1990 in Texas prisons, where less than a third have air conditioning in all housing areas.
U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison at a hearing Wednesday in Houston gave the state 30 days to comply, but not before questioning why its lawyers had not provided the information sooner, the Houston Chronicle reported (http://bit.ly/2hzkC3J ).
The order comes as part of a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in 2013 that contends at least 13 inmates being held by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice have died of heat-related deaths since 2007, including 11 in 2011 when a heat wave brought some of the hottest temperatures on record.
“We are not talking about how many widgets were sold out of a given factory,” Ellison said during the hearing. “We are talking about human lives, and I would be very distressed if the answer is the TDCJ does not even keep count of how many people died of heat-related illness.”
The lawsuit argues more than 1,400 prison inmates, most of them elderly and disabled, are suffering “cruel and unusual punishment” by enduring extreme summer heat without air-conditioning.
“The well-being of staff and offenders is a top priority for the agency and we remain committed to making sure that both are safe during the extreme heat,” according to a statement by prison spokesman Jason Clark.
There are 109 state prison facilities in Texas, with 30 that are air-conditioned in all housing areas. Clark said all prison units now have at least some areas that are air-conditioned.
But Austin lawyer Jeff Edwards, representing prisoners on whose behalf the lawsuit was filed, said conditions in the prisons have “turned fraud into a death sentence, drunk driving into a death sentence.”
If the number of people escaping from prison were as high as the number of people suffering heat-related deaths, Edwards said, “heads would roll and things would change.”
Ellison also ordered TDCJ to provide figures on the number of heat-related injuries to staff and inmates at the Hodge Unit, a prison south of Tyler in East Texas that opened in 1995 without any air-conditioning.
Edwards said a key part of the case is to find out what prison officials knew about people being injured or killed by the heat and how they responded.
“It has always been a huge problem in the Texas prison system, and they ought to be able to tell us who died of heat-related illness in the Texas prison system,” Edwards said during the hearing, “and if they can’t, they ought to say it under oath.”
TDCJ says a study has determined that just to outfit four prisons with air-conditioning would cost approximately $350 million.