Arsenic or heat stroke? For Texas inmates, a tough choice

News 8's Brett Shipp has more.

NAVASOTA, Texas -- A federal judge is ordering Texas prison officials to stop forcing inmates to drink water laced with dangerous levels of arsenic.

The cancer-causing chemical has been found in the water at one Texas prison for the past 10 years. Yet, according to the judge, state prison officials have done little or nothing to make the water safe.

WFAA-TV has previously reported conditions in Texas prisons are so bad, they’ve been put on a United Nations watch list.

When they built the Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota, Texas, in 1983, state officials chose not to provide inmates with air conditioning. In fact, only a few of the state prisons in Texas are air-conditioned.

“It’s like you can’t breathe at all,” said Keith Cole, an inmate at the Pack Unit. “You feel like you are suffocating all the time -- especially when it’s extremely hot.”

Ray Wilson, a former Pack Unit inmate now living in Conroe, recalls the perils of having to deal with the summer heat without air conditioning.

“There were people lying on the floors with wet t-shirts in order to cool themselves off,” Wilson said. “When you opened up a window, all you got was a jet blast of air coming through, hot air coming in.”

Both Cole and Wilson are plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging Texas’s prisons violated the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Their attorney, Jeff Edwards of Austin, has filed several such lawsuits against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice over what he calls inhumane and deadly conditions.

“It’s in the Constitution – you do not have the right to treat someone in a cruel and unusual manner,” Edwards said. ”What’s unusual about exposing someone to period of extreme heat is that you can kill them.”

But according to former inmate Wilson, fellow inmates are caught in a health trap.

“The philosophy was, if the heat don’t get you, the arsenic will,” Wilson said.

While it may sound like a joke, it is anything but.

According to their federal lawsuit, inmates at the Pack Unit are encouraged to drink two gallons a water a day on extremely hot days.

But the well water that supplies the prison contains levels of arsenic, a known carcinogen, higher than what the federal government allows for drinking water.

The levels put anyone who drinks the water at a higher chance for developing cancer.

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.

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.

Inmate Keith Cole is suing the Texas prison officials -- not only for being forced to drink arsenic laden water, but for having to endure dangerous summer heat.

The stifling conditions in Texas prisons is no secret. There have been 14 heat-related deaths since 2005, including 10 in 2011 alone.

A News 8 Investigation has found another 21 asthma-related deaths in the past ten years, many also heat-related.

Larry McCollum, 58, of died of a heatstroke after seven days at the state prison in Hutchins in 2011. The heat index inside the prison on that July day was an estimated 120 degrees. The family is suing prison officials and Warden Jeff Pringle, who answered questions in a video-taped deposition.

  • Attorney: “Do you personally, Warden Pringle, believe that the Hutchins Unit does a wonderful job protecting inmates from extreme heat?”
  • Pringle: “Yes it does."
  • Attorney:  ”Do you agree that they did a wonderful job with regards to protecting Mr. McCollum from the dangers of extreme heat?”
  • Pringle: “Yes, they did?”

Back in Navasota, at the Pack Unit this week, inmate Cole says he is happy to do an interview in a visitation area located just a few feet away from his warden’s office.

The thermostat in the room was set on 68 degrees.

“This is paradise,” Cole said. “I could stay here forever.”

Minutes later, Cole was back in his cell block. Back to the heat and the arsenic-tainted water.

“If this were happening in an elementary school, the principal and the superintendent would be in jail,” Edwards said.

Last week, the federal judge hearing the case signed an injunction, giving prison officials two weeks to provide drinkable water to the inmates.

Prisons officials, who have declined our requests for an interview, say the water is safe to drink and they plan to appeal the judge’s ruling.

Here is their full statement to WFAA-TV:

The agency plans to appeal the ruling. The water at the Pack Unit is safe to drink according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Texas Department of State Health Services. The federal government’s standards regarding arsenic have changed significantly over the last 10 years. After the standard was lowered in 2006 from 50 parts per billion to 10 ppb, the agency installed a water filtration system at the Pack Unit. The system lowered the levels near the new standard but did not fully satisfy the new federal requirement. Although this is not an emergency and the water is safe to drink, we have designed a new filtration system which has been approved by TCEQ, and the final installation is expected in early 2017.

Email bshipp@wfaa.com

Doc 477_Judge Order Granting Preliminary Injunction

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