March was going to be an interesting month in Texas legal history. A landmark trial was scheduled to begin, and it would have affected prisons all over the state. However, that trial won’t happen now. The parties involved have come to a settlement, and that agreement could be just as earthshaking as the trial it precludes.
What Texas Prisoners Sued for and Won
Texas summers are hot. Temperatures can often climb past 100-degrees, making the heat not only insufferable, but downright dangerous. That’s why having a powerful air conditioner is practically a requirement for humane conditions here in South Texas. So, why do so few prisons in our state have air conditioners? This was the question put forward by a class action lawsuit filed on the part of prisoners in the Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota.
The Pack houses geriatric inmates and in the past few years, the prison has had serious issues with AC. In the heat waves of 2011 and 2012, eight inmates died, and one was injured, due to the heat at the Pack. That led to families and individuals filing a 2014 class action lawsuit demanding that the prison have air conditioning installed. But legal proceedings have taken a long time to get underway.
As this case has dragged out, new disturbing facts have slowly come to light. Since 1998, almost two dozen inmates have died due to heat stroke in Texas prisons. Plus, it was also discovered that prisons all over our state don’t have AC units, subjecting prisoners, staff and guards to inhumane levels of heat. Last summer the judge overseeing this case—U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison—issued an order that forced prison officials to transport heat sensitive prisoners at Pack to an air-conditioned facility. These facts finally led to an unexpected ending for this class action lawsuit.
Lawyers and Texas prison officials reached a tentative agreement. The state agreed to install air conditioning in the Wallace Pack Unit and it settled individual claims over the eight deaths and one injury related to heat exposure in this case. This settlement comes as a surprise to many experts, who expected the case to go to trial.
Many now believe that this settlement will open Texas up to changes at the more than 100 other prison facilities across the state. And that could end a trend of what Judge Ellison described as “cruel and unusual punishment” in the Pack unit. This goes to show just how big an effect a proper civil class action suit can have on policy and the law. For those who have been hurt or injured due to a loop hole in the system, a lawsuit like this can not only help compensate victims for the damages they’ve suffered, but they can prevent others from becoming victims of the same negligence.