By Gabrielle Banks

After years of court wrangling over the dangers of unmitigated summer heat in cellblocks, Texas prison officials have reached a tentative settlement to provide air conditioning at a geriatric prison outside of Houston along with resolving lawsuits involving inmates who died or were injured by excessive heat in several other prisons.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison, who has overseen the cases since the start, offered,"enormous congratulations all around," during an impromptu hearing Friday via teleconference in Houston to the lawyers involved in the settlement negotiations.

Spokesman Jason Clark, from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said afterward that the deal, which is subject to court approval, resolves the 2014 class action lawsuit over air conditioning as well as individual lawsuits involving heat deaths and injuries during heat waves in 2011 and 2012.

Clark said, "The agreement would end the protracted legal proceeding and provide additional safeguards for offenders at the Pack Unit who may be susceptible to extreme heat. In the coming weeks, the department and plaintiffs will be working to finalize details of the agreement which will be presented to the court."

Jeff Edwards, lead attorney for a group of inmates at the Wallace Pack Unit who sued over oppressive heat, said he was gratified by the state's willingness to come to the negotiating table, and thrilled for his clients.

"Six inmates took on a state system with $3 billion in resources and accomplished what they sought out to do from the very start," he said. "Unless we provide the same basic rights to inmates in terms of dignity, safety and medical care, everybody's rights are at risk."

At the brief status hearing Friday, Ellison told the lawyers via teleconference that he was extremely heartened by news of the deal.

Upon learning of the settlement agreement earlier, Ellison told the Chronicle, "It seems like a very big deal and it surprises me. I didn't realize they were close. It's huge."

"It's nothing less than fundamental change in the daily existence of hundreds of men -- transformative change," the judge  said.

Ellison congratulated the lawyers for finding common ground.

"I think its lawyering at its absolute best by people who worked through many disagreements to reach a just settlement," Ellison said.

For the inmates, a resolution would mark significant progress.

The comprehensive deal could end a civil rights lawsuit prompted by a string of fatalities at Texas prisons.

The agreement was hammered out during several days of intensive negotiations in Austin between a team of lawyers from state Attorney General Ken Paxton's office and lawyers from Edwards Law and the Texas Civil Rights Project, who represent a group of Pack inmates.

The deal calls for temporary cooling systems to be installed at the Pack Unit dormitories with permanent systems to be installed with approval from the legislature. The cost of the systems is still being assessed.

The state also agreed to transport heat sensitive inmates from Pack in air conditioned buses.

In terms of the wrongful death cases, the state has agreed to settle for varying amounts with the victims' family members based on the circumstances of their deaths, how long they expected to remain in prison and other factors.

At an emergency injunction hearing in June, inmates testified they became dizzy and vomited from the heat. Texas prison officials provided documentation that 22 inmates had died from heat stroke at 15 Texas prisons since 1998.

Elllison ruled in July that the indoor heat at Pack was life-threatening for vulnerable inmates, writing in a scathing opinion that the summer conditions amounted to "cruel and unusual punishment."

He ordered the prison to provide cool housing units during the summer months for medically sensitive inmates, but he gave TDCJ officials the flexibility to fulfill his order as they saw fit.

Citing the prohibitive cost of installing air conditioning, officials opted to ship more than 1,000 inmates from the Pack Unit to prisons that already had air conditioning on site. Additional inmates were transferred to make room for the Pack evacuees.

But Ellison's ruling was only temporary, and the case had been set for trial March 5.

That trial has now been canceled. Inmates this afternoon were expecting to hear the news from their lawyers about major changes in the months to come.

(c)2018 the Houston Chronicle