Lawsuit Says There Were Nine Heat-Related Deaths at Texas Prisons in 2011. That's Way Too Many

Every year, when temperatures in Texas inevitably hit triple digits, the inside of the state's prison cells heat up like an ovens. Only 21 of 111 units in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system are fully air conditioned; the rest have some AC but mostly not in the inmates' quarters. Every year, there is obligatory news coverage of the outcry over soaring jail temps that "pops up every summer like crabgrass," in the words of a 2010 article in The Dallas Morning News. It's become a ritual that, like most rituals, has no real impact, which is why there continue to be stories like the one first reported yesterday by the Texas Tribune.

Larry Gene McCollum was serving an 11-month sentence at Hutchins State Jail in Dallas when, following a string of 100-degree days last summer, the 58-year-old suffered a seizure on the night of July 22. According to a lawsuit filed yesterday by attorneys with the Texas Civil Rights Project on behalf of his daughter, McCollum was taken to the hospital where his body temperature was measured at 109.4 degrees Fahrenheit. He fell into a coma and died six days later of what an autopsy concluded was hyperthermia "due to housing in a hot environment without air conditioning."

TDJC wouldn't comment on the lawsuit, but spokesman Jason Clark passed along an emailed statement that said the agency "strives to mitigate the impact of temperature extremes" by providing ice and additional water to inmates, restricting outside activity, training employees and inmates to be aware of heat stroke, and allowing fans for all custody levels, among other measures. He also noted that "correctional officers and much of the unit staff work in the same conditions as the offenders."

That may be true, but it's also true that TDCJ inmates die of hyperthermia at an alarming rate. Scott Medlock, one of the attorneys who filed the McCollum case, said McCollum's was one of nine heat-related deaths in 2011 alone, and he expects heat played a role in several others. (Medlock said he got those stats from a legislative aide. I asked Clark if TDCJ tracks heat-related death or illness, but he hasn't responded.)

If this was happening to anybody else, the state Legislature would have seized on the issue long ago, but these are convicted prisoners who have forfeited the luxuries that come with free life. There simply aren't many lawmakers clamoring to spend taxpayer money to make inmates comfortable.

Of course, Medlock's argument isn't that prisoners should be more comfortable, it's that keeping prisoners in oven-like jail cells -- recorded temperatures at Hutchins have reached 106 degrees, according to the suit -- amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of constitutional rights. He said he's not pushing for the thermostat to be set to 68, not even that all cells be air conditioned. A good start would be taking more precautions for inmates like McCollum, who had high blood pressure and was taking medication that upped his risk of heat stroke.

"The irony is that the county jails are all air conditioned," he said. "They're required to have temperature kept between 65 and 85 degrees." But the Legislature has never enacted similar measures for state-run facilities. "There's not a lot of political will to make the prisons safe and humane, which is really what's required here." Medlock said. But with inmates dying and similar lawsuits working through the court system, Medlock thinks they may have to.

McCollum Lawsuit

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson