Last month, the daughter of Larry Gene McCollum sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. McCollum was serving an 11-month sentence at Hutchins State Jail in Dallas last summer when, after days in a cell where the temperature neared triple digits, he had a seizure. He was taken to the hospital, where his temperature peaked at 109.4 degrees. He fell into a coma and died six days later of hyperthermia.
The crux of the lawsuit was that the state fails to take proper measures to protect its charges from heat, which, in the Texas summer, can amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Of TDCJ's 111 units, only 21 are fully air conditioned, the suit points out. In 2011 alone, it claims, there were nine heat-related deaths.
That number -- nine dead in one summer -- came from a legislative aide, TCCJ's Scott Medlock told us. In fact, though, records provided to Unfair Park by the state show there was one more: 10 heat-related deaths in Texas prisons in 2011, all in the course of 30 very hot days.
Either way, that's an alarming number, even if the summer of 2011 was an aberration. Since 2005, only two other prisoners suffered heat-related deaths, both in 2007. Each of the prisoners who died had an underlying medical condition, as you can see below, but the likely cause of death in all is hyperthermia.
TDCJ says it takes steps during the summer to ensure its inmates stay as cool as possible and well hydrated, but as last summer proved, that hasn't fixed the problem. A real solution is as simple as it would be controversial: a law setting a maximum indoor temperature of 85 degrees for state prisons, just like there is for county jails.
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That's not going to happen. For one, it's too easy for policymakers to dismiss. Keith Price, a professor at West Texas A&M and former warden, told the Times that, really, 10 prisoners of 150,000 dying in a year is not a big deal. It's kinda their own fault, really.
"Just from a statistical standpoint, that's really not significant, particularly when you consider the population," Price said. "Many inmates are poorly equipped to manage their lives and thus make poor decisions. I do not believe it is up to the taxpayers to provide air-conditioning for inmates when some simple self-discipline would avoid many of these problems."
But what it's really about is money. Legislators will never vote to spend any amount of cash to give prisoners air conditions. In the current climate, that's political suicide. Much easier to say they're bad people who deserve what happens to them, at least until a court says otherwise.