Texas prison officials admit violating court order on air conditioned units for inmates

TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier said under oath that "we failed as an agency"

Published September 18, 2019 3:00AM (EDT)

 (Getty Images/istockphoto)
(Getty Images/istockphoto)

This article originally appeared on The Texas Tribune.

Days after a federal judge threatened to jail Texas prison officials for violating a settlement agreement to put some inmates in air conditioned housing, the top Texas Department of Criminal Justice leader admitted in open court that the agency broke federal orders and that keeping inmates in temperatures above 100 degrees creates a serious health risk.

TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier said under oath that "we failed as an agency" in not monitoring the temperatures on units where his agency houses inmates who are supposed to be protected by the federal lawsuit settlement the state admitted to violating.

During about two hours of testimony, Collier acknowledged there had been little to no discipline yet for those responsible for one admitted violation.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison thanked Collier for testifying Tuesday but showed concern throughout the hearing with what he has called "indefensible" conduct by the agency. He noted a continuing “factual disconnect” on what temperatures are in prisons housing the inmates in the lawsuit, said someone had lied in an effort to postpone an emergency inspection of conditions at one prison and expressed distrust in how well TDCJ will comply with the settlement in the future.

“For us to need these hearings to seek something as simple as regular temperature readings makes me worry about what else I haven’t discovered yet,” he said, hunched over the bench with a furrowed brow. “The kind of violations we’re talking about are something that transcend a particular industry and a particular office — they’re almost Geneva code violations.”

The lengthy questioning stems from a yearslong lawsuit originating at the William Pack prison near College Station. In 2014, several inmates at the prison sued the department for keeping them in uncooled housing where temperatures routinely surpass 100 degrees. The Pack prison is one of 75 Texas prison facilities that don’t have air conditioning in housing areas.

In 2017, Ellison ruled that keeping vulnerable inmates in sweltering temperatures was cruel and unusual punishment, and he ordered some inmates to be placed in air conditioned beds. The next year, TDCJ and the inmates’ lawyers settled, agreeing to air condition the Pack prison and keep all prisoners who were housed at the prison during the lawsuit in air conditioning even if they were later moved to other prison facilities.

But the inmates’ lawyers say TDCJ has repeatedly violated that settlement agreement and filed a detailed motion last week asking for court sanctions, including hefty fines on the department. The motion included more details from an August incident — which also prompted two emergency hearings from Ellison — in which nearly 40 inmates named in the settlement were kept in stifling temperatures at the LeBlanc prison in Beaumont. The lawyers say TDCJ officials tried to cover up the temperatures and withhold information when lawyers started hearing complaints from prisoners.

Ellison almost immediately scheduled a hearing for the next day, where he slammed the agency’s conduct and threatened a sanction of locking up prison officials in the same hot cells the inmates were wrongly kept in. Ultimately he held off on immediately issuing sanctions, but he ordered multiple wardens to testify under oath on how they are ensuring compliance with the lawsuit and preventing incidents like the one at LeBlanc.

Collier, along with his agency’s deputy executive director and general counsel, showed up in court Tuesday with a group of other prison officials and lawyers from the Texas Attorney General’s Office. Multiple wardens also called in to testify, but only Collier was ultimately questioned.

“We shouldn’t have had to come because we should not have had this issue,” Collier said after the hearing. “And I wanted personally to be here so I could convey that to the court.”

Collier explained how the department had, since Friday, begun recording temperatures five times a day in the seven other prisons that are housing inmates covered by the Pack settlement to ensure the air conditioning systems are working and heat indices — which include humidity — stay at or below 88 degrees, as is required by the lawsuit. Collier said that all the nearly 850 inmates covered by the settlement are currently kept in functioning air conditioning.

The prison system only moves inmates involved in the lawsuit to prisons with air-conditioned housing, but at LeBlanc, an air conditioner had been broken and unfixed for an unknown length of time. Department officials previously fought the request from prisoners’ lawyers for temperature logs at prisons they received complaints about. Officials said the settlement only required them to record temperatures at the Pack Unit.

Ellison questioned Collier on why temperatures weren’t being recorded at those units previously, noting it “seems like such an omission for a jurisdiction that has summers as intense as Texas.”

“I can’t say anything except you’re absolutely correct,” Collier responded. “We should have been monitoring those all along.”

Collier also outlined a plan for the future, including installing permanent temperature readers at all prisons with air conditioning to ensure they are functioning, as well as their ongoing shuffle of 13,000 prisoners they’ve deemed medically sensitive into air conditioning. He said about 8,000 have already been moved, and the remaining 5,000 are expected to be in cooled beds within two years.

For the 75 prisons without air conditioning, however, there are no plans to record inside temperatures — which also go well into triple digits. Collier said heat protocols — like allowing for more ice water and cool down showers — are based on outside temperatures in those units. State lawmakers this year debated requiring TDCJ to monitor temperatures inside inmate housing, but the measure failed.

“They are terrified of collecting data because they view it as a litigation problem,” Jeff Edwards, lead attorney for prisoners in the 2014 class action lawsuit, told reporters after the hearing.

Since 1998, the department has reported nearly two dozen prisoner heat-related deaths. At least one other death was reported to be caused by heat last year, though the department has contested that finding and said a final autopsy is still pending. As of Aug. 28, TDCJ reported 56 heat-related illnesses this year for prisoners and employees.

TDCJ has long maintained that it has enough heat-mitigating practices in place to combat Texas summers, like extra personal fans and limited access to air-conditioned areas. On Tuesday, Collier agreed with Ellison’s and Edwards’ statements that keeping inmates housed in temperatures surpassing 100 degrees is a serious health risk.

He later clarified that it is not a health risk for every inmate but is for those with medical vulnerabilities.

Ellison seemed to agree that at least one sanction against TDCJ should be the cost of the attorney fees but gave TDCJ 21 days from Thursday's motion to file a written briefing before deciding on other fines or additional action. But he warned that he needed to see more movement from the agency and had little patience for some of Collier’s responses. That included Collier claiming ignorance or faulting unnamed mid-level employees for false statements about an air conditioner functioning or reasons to postpone inspections.

“This is a pattern I’m concerned with,” Ellison said near the end of the hearing. “From the beginning of this set of legal writings, we’ve had a very difficult time getting the department’s attention. … These perfectly appropriate, even pressing questions are invariably met with a response — ‘I don't know, it was somebody else, we’re not sure, you assume too much.’ When you’re talking about life and death, those are not sufficient answers. They’re just not.”

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. 

By Jolie McCullough

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