President Donald Trump’s consistent off-the-walls belligerence might distract you from other, deeply set issues across the U.S. — but they remain in place anyway. This Friday, Texas Federal Judge Keith Ellison reached such a breaking point in dealing with state officials’ consistent failures to comply with court orders for safe conditions for inmates that he threatened to lock up prison officials in the dangerous conditions in their facilities. The danger centers on heat. For significant numbers of Texas detainees, their living conditions have at times been left to climb to 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, and there have been a full 56 heat-related illnesses recorded just this year among inmates and employees across the state. At least nearly two-dozen heat-related deaths have unfolded over the last couple decades.
In what the Texas Tribune called a “visibly frustrated” state, Ellison declared at a swiftly called hearing this week:
‘It seems the most obvious sanction is pretty straightforward. We ought to have prison officials in prison at the same temperature.’
The inmates’ lead lawyer Jeff Edwards added:
‘This is not a mere compliance issue — this is a life and death issue. Someone is going to die because of one of two things: utter incompetence that I haven’t seen in my practice of law — and I’ve seen a lot — or utter indifference.’
The case that this development unfolded as part of began five years ago, when a group of inmates held in the 100 degree conditions sued the state Department of Justice. Ellison declared in 2017 that the treatment constituted “cruel and unusual punishment,” and the next year, Ellison’s reported to have “applauded” state authorities’ plan to introduce functional air conditioning for the unit that originally sparked the lawsuit at the William Pack prison. However — the situation is still lagging, and the hundreds of inmates who are part of the lawsuit have at times still been left in dangerous heat, not even to mention other similar conditions of other inmates in the state.
The Friday hearing at which Ellison again tore into state officials and demanded action unfolded after the inmates’ legal team sought to hold prison officials in contempt of court and fine them for violation of previous orders demanding action on conditions the prisoners have been kept in.
Although no state official actually showed up to the quickly called Friday hearing, speaking over the phone, the state’s Assistant Attorney General Leah O’Leary requested more time for compliance, insisting that Ellison has “our attention” — although the judge explicitly noted he doubted that idea. Still, O’Leary noted plans underway like the transfer of some inmates back to the Pack unit where air conditioning is now properly installed.
Following this Friday hearing, there’s another hearing set for Tuesday. Ellison demanded that at that hearing, the state Justice Department “update him on the situation and report temperatures from each of the 12 units housing inmates in the lawsuit.” He also demanded that wardens at each of those units be prepared to testify under oath about conditions at the facilities.
The situation is a unique facet of the one unfolding across the United States in which “justice” officials enact something more like a system of punitive punishment that leaves targeted individuals dead.
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