AUSTIN - Hurricane Harvey and a federal lawsuit are prompting shake-ups at four Texas prison facilities this week.
About 3,300 inmates began transfers to other prisons on Thursday morning — a musical chairs scenario spurred by a federal judge's order that more than 700 heat-sensitive prisoners be moved into an air-conditioned facility. Those prisoners had been evacuated from a flood-prone facility to a notoriously hot prison in the midst of Hurricane Harvey.
"It's a significant logistical challenge," said Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. "I can tell you that it's not an easy process and it took a significant amount of time to determine how to comply with [the order]."
After Harvey made landfall last month, more than 1,000 prisoners from the flood-prone Stringfellow Unit in Brazoria County were evacuated to the largely-emptied Pack Unit in Navasota. That prison had so many empty beds because of a July federal injunction that deemed hot conditions at the facility cruel and unusual — and ordered that heat-sensitive inmates, including the elderly, obese, and those with diabetes or heart conditions, be moved to air-conditioned housing.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison ruled that hundreds of the Harvey evacuees at the Pack Unit were eligible to join that special class of heat-sensitive inmates under the lawsuit, even though their stay there was only temporary.
"The risk of harm to these individuals when they are housed in dangerously hot areas has not changed," Ellison wrote in his order.
By Thursday, TDCJ had identified 710 evacuees at the Pack Unit who qualified as heat-sensitive under the lawsuit, and began transferring them to the air-conditioned LeBlanc Unit in Beaumont. But that transfer required a shift of inmates to and from other prisons around the state.
More than 1,100 inmates at LeBlanc are being moved to the nearby — and un-airconditioned — Gist Unit. An estimated 750 inmates will move from Gist to Stringfellow, where floodwaters have since receded. And about 380 new prisoners will arrive at the Travis State Jail in Austin from Gist, while another 380 leave the Austin facility for LeBlanc.
Clark said the numbers are subject to change as the transfers are carried out through Friday, but not by much.
Ironically, the Harvey-evacuated Stringfellow Unit — like 75 percent of Texas prisons and state jails — isn't air-conditioned, either. The federal lawsuit focuses only on the Pack Unit. The lawsuit cites at least 23 heat-related deaths in Texas prisons since 1998 and argues temperatures at Texas prisons routinely surpass 100 degrees.
TDCJ has appealed the court's July order and says the department does enough to combat the heat without providing air-conditioning, such as providing unlimited ice water, personal fans and air-conditioned "respite" areas in the prisons where inmates can go to escape the heat.