Three groups filed a class action lawsuit Wednesday against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and its executive director, Brad Livingston, alleging Texas prisons' lack of air conditioning is dangerous.
The lawsuit, filed in Houston federal court, alleges TDCJ is housing inmates in inhumane conditions that violate constitutional rights. Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota, Texas, lacks air-conditioning, and summer temperatures can send living conditions sweltering into the triple digits.
The groups bringing the suit include the Texas Civil Rights Project, and the University of Texas School of Law’s Civil Rights Clinic. The suit was filed on behalf of four prisoners at Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota. It also names Wallace Pack Unit senior warden Roberto Herrera as a defendant.
UT Law professor Rajana Natarajan says it’s a case about providing humane treatment.
“Even inside their dorms it might be 100 degrees or 102 degrees, so they never get any respite from the extreme heat,” Natarajan says. “This case is not about discomfort. It’s about the pain and suffering that causes, and the detriment to these clients and these prisoners’ health.”
Wallace Pack Unit is one of TDCJ’s medical and geriatric facilities, and houses a large number of inmates over the age of 65. Natarajan says the increased age of the center’s population increases the importance of maintaining an acceptable temperature inside the building. The goal of the lawsuit is for the court to require that the inside heat index of the unit be no higher than 88 degrees.
Texas law mandates county jails be climate-controlled, but the law does not apply to state prisons.
“By making these people sit in jail without any climate control, what TDCJ is doing is increasing the risk that they are going to have some kind of heat related illness or heat related emergency,” Natarajan says.
TDCJ officials declined to comment to KUT on the class action lawsuit, saying the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
Public information director Jason Clark did say that the wellbeing of staff and inmates is a top priority, adding that the agency provides water and ice to staff and inmates, restricts activity during the hottest parts of the day, and trains staff to identify anyone suffering from heat and to refer them to medical staff.
No hearing is currently set for the suit. Natarajan says she's hoping for the earliest date possible.