By Keri Blakinger
A federal judge accused the Texas prison system of violating the terms of a settlement in a contentious class-action lawsuit and ordered prison officials to transfer inmates out of a sweltering Beaumont lock-up after a failed cooling system saw indoor temperatures exceed 90 degrees.
The blistering two-page court order issued on Friday by U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison is the latest twist in a legal case that started five years ago, when men at the Pack Unit in Navasota sued over dangerously high temperatures in the uncooled facility. Last year, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice promised to install air-conditioning at the East Texas lock-up and to make sure that all the men involved in the lawsuit would be housed in facilities kept under 88 degrees.
But prison officials apparently failed to uphold their end of the bargain when they transferred 37 men who were part of the Pack settlement to the 1,200-man LeBlanc Unit, where the cooling system faltered. The judge called two emergency hearings in 48 hours before ordering the agency to relocate the men, all while chiding officials for failing to act on their own given the severity of the heat conditions.
“Uncontroverted evidence has been adduced to show that temperatures vastly in excess of the maximum temperatures set forth in the agreed settlement of the case have prevailed for an undetermined length of time through an undetermined portion of LeBlanc Unit,” Ellison wrote. “Defendants have shown negligible interest in ascertaining the breadth of the problem, its likely cause, or the necessary remedies.”
Officials on Saturday said the prison system has complied with the order by shipping the men back to Pack and trying to fix the air conditioning in the LeBlanc Unit.
“Maintenance crews have been working to repair two air conditioning units at the Leblanc Unit and have been for several days,” said spokesman Jeremy Desel. “Those efforts continue. TDCJ continues to work diligently to follow all aspects of the Pack Unit settlement.”
Under the settlement, prison officials are allowed to transfer the more than 1,400 Pack prisoners involved in the case to other units, as long as those facilities are cooled. Most the 37 men who’d been moved to LeBlanc were sent there to attend programs in preparation for release, according to court filings.
Lawyers for the prisoners started fielding complaints in July from some of the men claiming the LeBlanc air conditioning hadn’t been working for more than two weeks. Attorney Scott Medlock alerted prison officials, who responded saying the cooling system “has been functioning properly and has maintained the temperature just below 85 degrees.”
When the prisoners’ attorneys asked for logs to verify that, prison officials refused to turn over any proof, saying that the settlement didn’t require them to monitor the temperature daily at air-conditioned units. Eventually, Medlock and his team asked for a site visit to check the temperatures.
The following day, according to court filings, prison officials turned over a document alleging that any cooling maintenance issues had been “resolved within hours.”
“It is apparent this document is misleading at best,” the prisoners’ attorneys wrote, “and patently untrue at worst.”
That became clear, the lawyers said, after they showed up last week for the site visit and asked prison officials to measure the temperature and heat index in 15 spots. Fourteen of the areas measured were over 90 degrees and one was over 100.
But after their visit, Medlock and his team questioned whether prison officials had been checking the temperatures at all.
“Since class counsel reported potential problems at the LeBlanc Unit to TDCJ’s counsel weeks ago, TDCJ has been telling class counsel that indoor apparent temperatures were ‘just below 85 degrees’ when, in reality, TDCJ was not actually checking the temperatures inside,” the attorneys wrote. “It would be obvious to anyone actually inspecting the conditions that the ‘thermostats’ were not reporting the actual indoor temperatures.”
In some of the locations, attorneys discovered that regular monitoring would require climbing inside the air conditioning unit to see the thermostat — which Medlock did. But in the course of the inspection, the attorneys realized that the thermostats only reflected the temperature the air conditioning unit is set to, and not the actual temperature in the building; one thermostat read 30 degrees, even though the indoor heat index was 97 degrees.
After Medlock and his team filed a seven-page emergency motion reporting their findings, Ellison issued an order the same day, requiring the inmate transfers but also mandating that the men not be penalized or held in prison longer because they couldn’t stay in their programs at LeBlanc. Now, Texas prison officials have until Monday to file a response telling the judge what they’ve done to comply with the order.
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