AUSTIN, Texas — As summer sun sends temperatures soaring across much of the country, a federal judge has ordered the Lone Star State to stop giving poisonous drinking water to some of its most vulnerable prisoners.
On June 21, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison gave prison officials 15 days to replace the arsenic-laden water supply at the Wallace Pack Unit, a minimum security facility northwest of Houston that houses mostly elderly and chronically ill inmates. In his decision, Ellison said the tainted water “violates contemporary standards of decency.”
“The Texas Department of Criminal Justice plans to appeal the ruling, according to a spokesman,” The Houston Chronicle reported.
Despite corrections department officials insisting the water is not “lethal or likely to cause harm,” the Chronicle’s Gabrielle Banks reported that “[t]he prison’s water currently registers between two and four-and-a-half times the amount of arsenic permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency.”
Ellison’s emergency order is part of an ongoing lawsuit by Wallace Pack Unit inmate Keith Cole over the dangerous conditions in the prison, which include both the toxic water and a total lack of air conditioning,
Brett Shipp, an investigative journalist with WFAA, a Dallas-area ABC affiliate, wrote that conditions at the unit force inmates to choose between “arsenic or heat stroke.”
In the July 1 report, Ray Wilson, a former inmate, told Shipp that “inmates are caught in a health trap.”
“The philosophy was, if the heat don’t get you, the arsenic will,” said Wilson.
Watch “Arsenic or heat stroke? For Texas inmates, a tough choice” from WFAA:
Deaths from heat stroke are not unheard of in Texas prisons. “There have been 14 heat-related deaths since 2005, including 10 in 2011 alone,” Shipp reported. WFAA also found an additional 21-asthma related deaths over the past 10 years, many of which were heat-related.
Brandi Grissom, Austin Bureau chief at The Dallas Morning News, reported on June 29 that more than 70 percent of Texas prisons lack air conditioning.
“Only 30 of Texas’ 109 prison units are fully air-conditioned. Particular areas of other units are air-conditioned, as are medical, geriatric and psychiatric facilities,” Grissom reported.
In November 2014, the United Nations 53rd Committee Against Torture put Texas prisons on notice over concerns that the high temperatures violate basic human rights.
According to Shipp, Wallace Pack Unit prison officials have also known about problems with the water supply for years.
“The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has issued a notice of violation to the Pack Unit every year for the past 10 years for unacceptable levels of arsenic in the water,” Shipp reported. “Prison officials installed a filtration system, but failed to get it to work over the past decade, and are now working on a second system.”
Watch “Inmates Complain About Prison Water Problems” from FOX San Antonio:
The lawsuit against the Wallace Pack Unit is not the first time Texas prisons have been accused of limiting prisoners access to clean drinking water. In 2013, prisoners at the maximum security John B. Connally Unit, located 75 miles southeast of San Antonio, complained of water rationing even as temperatures reached 100 degrees.
“It is unconstitutional not to provide inmates with running water,” Michelle Smith of the Texas Civil Rights Project told Texas Public Radio. “They are entitled under the Eighth Amendment to have hygienic and sanitary conditions — to be able to wash their hands, use the restroom, take showers. As well as their constitutional rights to be free from any conditions that going to affect their health, like heat.”
Scott Medlock, one of the attorneys for the Wallace Pack Unit inmates, told Grissom that he hopes the lawsuit will improve conditions for inmates throughout the state.
“The ultimate goal is to make sure TDCJ gets the message that this is unacceptable,” Medlock said. “These temperatures are dangerous, and they’re playing games with people’s lives.”
Watch “Hot Texas Heat Kills Prisoners In Their Cells, So What? Say Lawmakers” from The Young Turks: