Thursday, July 20, 2017

What is the upshot of TDCJ heat litigation injunction?

Hard to know the full implications, yet, but the issuance of injunctive relief by a federal district judge in favor of inmates complaining of un-air-conditioned housing in TDCJ's Wallace Pack Unit surely changes the terms of debate surrounding heat-related deaths of Texas prisoners. See coverage from the Houston Chronicle and the judge's 100+ page order.

It's hard to know the implications for several reasons. First, the ruling only applies to one TDCJ unit, not all of them, and Grits is unclear of how this ruling might affect other facilities. Is it a one-off that only applies to the Pack unit, or will TDCJ be forced to adopt similar remedial measures to similarly situated inmates in other facilities?

Also, the judge's ruling that air conditioning must be supplied only applies to heat-sensitive inmates - i.e., inmates who are elderly, disabled, or who have special needs. It does not apply to younger, able-bodied inmates who are housed at the facility to do the work.

Still, it's going to apply to a lot of folks. From the ruling:
The parties stipulated that, as of September 18, 2014, the Pack Unit contained 728 men with hypertension (high blood pressure), 212 men with diabetes, 142 men with coronary artery disease, 111 obese men, 53 men with a psychiatric condition, 66 men prescribed an anti-psychotic medication, 22 men with cirrhosis of the liver, 84 men with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (“COPD”), 189 with thyroid dysfunction, and 113 with asthma. There are 188 men in the Pack Unit over the age of 65. Id. Many of these conditions overlap within one person. However, all of the conditions, individually, cause heat sensitivity[.]
If everybody with a psychiatric condition, everyone taking mental health meds, everyone with asthma, everyone over age 65, etc., all require air conditioning, TDCJ will find itself facing similar issues in dozens of facilities across the state.

It was also interesting to note that the judge believes some of TDCJ's heat mitigation methods are counterproductive. Fans used when the heat index surpasses 95 degrees Fahrenheit, for example, just blow hot air onto inmates and worsen the problem. Similarly, misters like those restaurants sometimes use to cool off patrons are less effective in prisons where they can't cover much area and over time actually serve to increase the humidity.

One interesting suggestion has arisen. Texas county jails overbuilt based on speculation that the mass incarceration boom would go on forever, and those facilities are air conditioned as required by state law and regulations by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. The County Judge in Newton County has already suggested that TDCJ inmates could be housed in his facility.

This thought, though not a terrible idea, raises its own set of issues. First, Grits wouldn't support shifting inmates to county contracts unless the state simultaneously moved to close un-air-conditioned state-run units. I wouldn't want to see this plan become a back-door means to raising capacity during an era when we should continue cutting it.

Second, because many of the inmates subject to the injunction are special needs inmates, there'd need to be expanded training and maybe additional hiring of more qualified jailers and support staff in order to handle TDCJ's sick and elderly, which is a quite different demographic of inmate than those who routinely cycle through county jails. I'm not certain most local facilities are able to handle them, and extremely rural sites like in Newton County may not have access to medical and mental-health supports that inmates with special needs might require.

Still, if TDCJ moved special needs inmates to air-conditioned county facilities, ensured they received adequate medical and mental-health care, and closed some state-owned prison units that couldn't be retrofitted with A/C, Grits can think of worse outcomes.

All that said, like the federal judge, Grits believes TDCJ is vastly overstating the costs to upgrade the Pack unit to add A/C. So when the real numbers are acknowledged, it may be cheapest and most efficient just to improve the facility and continue to treat elderly and disabled inmates where they are. If the agency can provide air conditioning for their hogs, they can do so for sick and elderly inmates.

Finally, all this depends on what the 5th Circuit does in response to the state's appeal. They have upheld injunctive relief in other prisoner-heat cases but insisted it be cabined to inmates with special heat-sensitivity issues. This ruling tracks that reasoning pretty closely, but the makeup of the 5th Circuit could change soon and there's no way to predict what mood they'll be in when they consider the case. And if the case ended up with cert granted at the US Supreme Court, your correspondent wouldn't be particularly surprised.


Anonymous said...

The heat is a horrible problem and I do not see how anything short of some type of chilled air system can mitigate it. The current system of giving some inmates "heat restrictions" is a joke, because you can't really keep any of them out of the heat at this time, and asking medical staff to "guess" who is at risk for heat related illness is fraught with problems. Most of the conditions listed as making people "heat sensitive" is broadly over-inclusive for most asthmatics, hypertensives, diabetics and HIV patients frankly do not have any more risk from heat than does the average person. Of course in Texas summer heat, EVERYONE is at risk for heat-relate4d illness. Thus it seems to me that without refrigerated air or evaporative-cooled air (not effective in high humidity) the problem is not boing to be resolved or even mitigated.

Prison Doc

Anonymous said...

Similarly, misters like those restaurants sometimes use to cool off patrons are less effective in prisons where they can't cover much area and over time actually, serve to increase the humidity.

Can we spell 'Sauna'?

The physics of mister systems require the system to use very high pressures. Even then the best delta T is <20F best case. The ones that operate on water mains pressure flat do not work. For all the presumed good they do one may as well be sitting under a lawn sprinkler.

Need I mention if the ambient humidity is above 50% even the high-pressure misting systems are ineffective.

Anonymous said...

Had to study heat effects of shade on vehicle temps recently. 40F is what is achievable in a car context through shade alone. That's just air temp. Surface temps in vehicles unprotected with shade can be as high as 192F which burns skin on contact. I would venture many buildings and structures in TDJC are designed without regard for heat effects like this. A/C will be part of the solution but so will ordinary shade production e.g. Trees and tarps. powered this or that....

Unknown said...

A/C will never happen because there is no money for it, plain and simple.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@7:24, there wasn't money for any of the stuff William Wayne Justice ordered under Ruiz, but low and behold when a federal judge began issuing sharply worded orders, the Legislature came up with it.

What's stopping them of contracting with counties that have A/C and closing outdated units?

He's Innocent said...

An amusing side note about Pack and a/c......

My spouse was incarcerated there during the time frame the litigation is based upon and we became aware of this after this amusing story. The lawsuit was filed shortly after he was released from TDCJ.

So the amusing story is this:
I went most weekends for visitation. In early March of 2014, the a/c in the visitors room broke. This went on for 3 weeks. He was on blood pressure meds, and I was on another type med that made me heat sick rather easily. When they still had not fixed it after three weeks, and no assistance from the Ombudman's office, I called the maintenance division of TDCJ. On a Friday morning. After sternly pointing out that many of the regular visitors were elderly themselves (many had walkers), they they were endangering the lives of these visitors in addition to the inmates. I advised I'd be reporting the issue to a television station on Monday if it was not fixed before I visited on Sunday.

My spouse called about 3 hours later, giggling. "Did you call someone about the a/c?" Why yes I had! He said that the a/c crew had been heading to their cells after their day of work only to be called right back out to fix the a/c in the visitor's room! The guys added that the parts had even been driven over in a PERSONAL vehicle by someone in the maintenance department in Huntsville!

The moral of my story? Keep pushing TDCJ to find what motivates them. Nothing gets changed until you use their own rules against them. I'd been doing it for several years, but that one was my crowning glory of pushing them into action. Thankfully, my husband's term was done in July of that year and he was moved from Pack by mid-June.

TDCJ deserves to have their shorts torched on this issue. Inmates, family members and *correctional staff too* deserve better conditions than this. I will not even bother to go into conditions he experienced while living in the dorm buildings made of metal and 2 stories tall.

Anonymous said...

When elderly inmates get taken to the Galveston hospital the shackles are sometimes put on so tight that the arms and legs stay fiery red for weeks afterwards. Just another way to administer sublime torture.

Anonymous said...

FYI The second meaning of TDC is: They Don't Care.I will just add that I am a TDC retiree and yes I know about the heat for sure. Everybody in TDC is waiting on something For some it's 5 o'clock,for some it's Friday,for sone it's retirement for the inmates it's to get out The saying use to be 8 and out the gate but now shifts are 12 hours long for security staff who by then just want to go home after being in the heat all day. You may say well at least they get to go home that's ok I understand. Just trying to point out what part of the promblem is about and that is the only people who care are the inmates that live there. Abd inmates have no say!
If the warden of a unit doesn't care about the working conditions of the security staff he for sure doesn't care about conditions that inmates have no relief from. If there is a lawsuit wardens are protected.
So They Don't Care and no one else does until it's THEIR son or daughter or loved one that is affected by the "get tuff on crime or lock 'em up and throw away the key" mentally. Ironic because people are just gettung what they ask for,so now you have it.
Maybe if a sentar, congressman, representative or judge's son or daughter gets locked up something might get done to change it. But I doubt it because their kids want get locked up in the first place. And TDC: They Don't Care.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes the change in temperature from the outside to the shower causes inmates to sit on a concrete bench and then---quietly die. My relative has seen more than a few men die in the shower after they came in from the outside.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the Judge, inmates are human. When the heat is unbearable it causes violence for the inmates and guards alike. the Supreme Court says inmates should be afforded some level of comfort. Providing air conditioning shows respect for inmates and guards alike. No guard wants to have heat stroke or die because of the excessive heat while on duty. Most of them already have a medical problem, as do some inmates. It is a disgrace to afford air conditioning for pigs and not people. Units are already understaffed because of poor working conditions. Texas can and should find the money to fix each complete unit.!!!!! Inmates and guards are human!!!!!!