Inmates Win Preliminary Injunction Against Extreme Heat

Inmates Win Preliminary Injunction Against Extreme Heat.

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In May 2016, a group of inmates at the Wallace Pack Unit (Pack Unit) filed a motion seeking a preliminary injunction to protect against exposure to extreme heat in the prison’s living quarters. U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison granted that preliminary injunction in July 2017, noting that “[t]he punishment of men and women who have been convicted of crimes in our society is limited by the bounds of the Eighth Amendment” and concluding that the conditions at the Pack Unit fall short of constitutional protections.[1]

Many of the inmates at the Pack Unit suffer from medical conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and psychiatric conditions. Additionally, almost 200 of the inmates are over the age of 65. These inmates typically have greater heat sensitivity than younger, healthy inmates. The inmates allege that exposure to extreme heat is “dangerous and damaging to their health” and therefore constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Their motion asked the court to require the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to lower indoor temperatures to below 88 degrees in certain areas.[2] For more information about the inmates’ motion, see our previous post, “Is Exposure to Extreme Heat Cruel and Unusual?”

In order to obtain a preliminary injunction under federal law, the inmates were required to show (1) a substantial likelihood of success on their underlying Eighth Amendment claim, (2) that the exposure to extreme heat created a threat of irreparable injury, (3) that the injunction did not disserve the public interest, and (4) that the threatened injury outweighed the harm imposed on the TDCJ if the injunction was issued. Judge Ellison found that the inmates’ argument satisfied this burden. First, the evidence showed “a substantial risk of serious injury or death” from the conditions at the Pack Unit. The opinion explained that at least 23 men in TDCJ facilities have died from heat exposure since 1998 and many more have suffered from heat-related illnesses. Although none of the deaths occurred at the Pack Unit, the judge concluded that the risk of harm is still substantial. The judge also noted that incidents of heat-related illness at the Pack Unit are vastly underreported. Additionally, the court found that the TDCJ has acted with deliberate indifference to the risks of heat-related illnesses by implementing only bare-minimum, ineffective measures to mitigate the exposure to extreme temperatures. This evidence supports both a threat of irreparable injury and a likelihood of success on the merits for the inmates’ underlying claim.[3]

Despite the TDCJ’s assertions that complying with the injunction would be financially catastrophic, the court noted that the TDCJ has a substantial annual budget from which to fund the required changes. Additionally, insufficient funding is not a supportable justification for infringing on a person’s constitutional rights. Therefore, the risk of injury from denying the injunction outweighs the risk of harm from imposing it. Finally, the preservation of a party’s constitutional rights is always in the public interest.[4]

Judge Ellison’s preliminary injunction requires the TDCJ to develop a plan to house approximately 500 heat-sensitive inmates in living quarters where the heat index does not exceed 88 degrees. Additionally, other prisoners at the Pack Unit must have easy access to respite areas. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton voiced dissatisfaction with the opinion and claims that it does not fully acknowledge the significant precautions the TDCJ has already adopted to protect inmates. The TDCJ plans to appeal the ruling.[5]

For more information about obtaining injunctive relief in federal courts, see O’Connor’s Federal Rules * Civil Trials.

[1] Cole v. Collier, No. 4:14-CV-1698 (S.D.Tex.2017) (slip op.; 7-19-17).

[2] See id.

[3] See id.

[4] See id.

[5] See id.; Michael Graczyk, Judge Orders Texas to Lower Temperature in Sweltering Prison, ABC News, July 19, 2017; Emanuella Grinberg, Texas Judge Orders Prison to Cool Down, CNN, July 19, 2017.