Judge threatens to put prison officials in same uncooled cells as inmates

Judge threatens to put prison officials in same uncooled cells as inmates
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A federal judge in Texas has threatened to put prison officials in uncooled cells after they failed to comply with an order to keep some prisoners in air conditioning at facilities known for topping 100 degrees.

U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison made the threat during an emergency hearing in Houston on Friday, The Texas Tribune reported.

The outlet reported that the judge appeared visibly frustrated, rubbing his forehead and furrowing his brow during his exchange with attorneys.

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“It seems the most obvious sanction is pretty straight forward,” he said at the hearing. “We ought to have prison officials in prison at the same temperature.”

The hearing stems from a lawsuit filed by inmates from the William Pack prison in 2014 over temperatures in 75 units that don't have air conditioning.

The lawsuit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice links the high temperatures and lack of air conditioning to the deaths of nearly two dozen prisoners since 1998, with one death reportedly caused by heat in 2018 — though state officials debate the cause of death in that case.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has reported 56 prisoners and employees suffering heat-related illnesses in 2019 alone. The agency asserts that number shows an improvement from 2018, which saw 71 heat-related illness incidents in the prison facility.

Ellison previously sided with inmates, calling the temperatures cruel and unusual punishment. He ordered the prison system to place prisoners in air-conditioned housing and ruled the Texas Department of Criminal Justice had been intentionally indifferent to the risk posed to prisoners.

In 2018, the two sides reached a settlement, but on Thursday, the attorneys representing the nearly 900 inmates in the class-action lawsuit filed a motion to hold prison officials in contempt for continuing to keep some of the inmates in hot facilities without air conditioning.

The filing prompted Friday's emergency hearing, for which no Texas Department of Criminal Justice or attorney general's officials appeared, according to the Texas Tribune.

Ellison threatened sanctions for the state officials if they do not testify in the future and scheduled a subsequent hearing for next week, the outlet reported.

In the meantime, Ellison asked for more information on the prison temperatures and further testimony to decide on whether fines or a sanction were appropriate penalties. 

“If that’s not done, then I think I have no option to award sanctions forthwith,” he said of the state officials needing to testify.