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

Categories: The Courts

prisoner in jail.jpg
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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18 comments
Bubba9898
Bubba9898

Life is tough in prison.  No doubt about it. 

Mike Ohlh
Mike Ohlh

I think Obama could fix it for you, he can buy ALL the old people in Texas an AC as well, hell, maybe he can put one in my car, I get hot in Texas too, I bet it gets a lot hotter in my car than 106, hell, in Arizona it gets 130 in the shade, we better buy them all an AC as well. While were at it, buy heaters for everyone in the North, I bet they get cold... Every year we get the stories about the old lady that froze to death... Can you guess what your Great grand parents would be thinking right about now?

Peggy
Peggy

I pray that everyone here with negative comments and no compassion for another human being one day finds themselves locked up in TDCJ.  There are a lot of people in prison that have done no more than the average citizen, your only saving grace is, you have not yet been caught.  There are also people in prison that have done nothing wrong, and yet were kept there for 25 or more years because of the incompetent justice system.  There are those of you that have driven your vehicle when you were intoxicated above the legal limit, yet you made it home and did not wind up in jail.  There are young men that are of age and have a girlfriend underage that have been forever labeled sex offenders.  There are a lot of variables here, and not all people that are incarcerated are murderers and rapist, and in for violent crimes.  Show some consideration and good sense before posting ugly comments before you find yourself in the same boat.

MIKEWAYNEJEWELL
MIKEWAYNEJEWELL

If you don't want to show some compassion, then how about some commonsense? Which do you want released back into society, people who have been demeaned and dehumanized, filled with anger and hatred, or people who have been counseled and rehabilitated? Sending people to TDCJ is like sending bad dogs to an obedience school that torments and mistreats them. What we get back are bad dogs that BITE.

Angrywhiteguy
Angrywhiteguy

What kind of a retarded post is this? Nazi germany & North korea? Anyone sitting in TDCJ cjose to be there.....so fuck them. Boo freakin hoo.

Ron McCollum
Ron McCollum

First of all this is an excellent, well written aritcle. I am Ron McCollum, Larry's brother. I was in law enforcment for 15 years and I believe in appropriate punishment for all criminals. RTGolden is right about the punishment being excessive. If you read the lawsuit you will learn that Larry had only been there for three days and was not yet issued an ID and therefore could not buy a water cup or fan. The exhaust fans were broken. They had Larry on a diuretic which made him more vunerable to the heat. His body temp. went to 109 and he lived 6 days in the ICU. Capital punishment is not this harsh!

Sotiredofitall
Sotiredofitall

My grandmother didn't breakdown and get a window AC until the 1960s.  

RTGolden
RTGolden

For comparison's sake: approx 230,000 wards in TDCJ's 7 divisions: some are probationers, some are in county jails (required by law to maintain a 65-85 degree average temp).  9 deaths in 2011. TX state pop, 2011: 25,884,000; 46 heat-related deaths in 2011 (according to noaa).  I have found nothing that indicates whether or not the 9 TDCJ deaths were added into the 46 deaths in the noaa chart. My math is probably off, but that seems to be somewhere in the neighborhood of a 21x higher rate of death from heat in the prisons than in the general population.  (unless the prison numbers are added in to the noaa totals, then the rate is even higher). Draw your own conclusions, I was just interested in the numbers.

RTGolden
RTGolden

To be fair, I think this guy was supposed to serve an 11-month sentence for forgery, so..... baking him in his cell might be considered excessive for the crime he committed.

Russp
Russp

The article states "TDJC inmates die of hyperthermia at an alarming rate" yet with 160,000 inmates in the TDJC population, that's only .00005%. I wonder how that compares to the general population   

Craigley
Craigley

I bet more old poor people died from heat related causes than these filth.   And the prison guards don't get AC either.  

Chiggers!
Chiggers!

Right. Sometimes the reason is: You're brownish.

Russp
Russp

Carrier "invented" commercial air conditioning in 1902 and it didn't come into wide use until the 50s. It seems people survived for many millennia before that. If they don't like conditions they will face in jail, don't commit the crimes that will put you there. 

Othersideofwalls
Othersideofwalls

Your right. As a guard most are in for stealing and robbing others. You can spend your money on those that won't give much respect but expect to be treated like their firggin royalty.

Angrywhitewoman
Angrywhitewoman

Hey Asshole, do you read the papers?  Have you seen the innocent men released due to Watson in Dallas?  You have no clue what the hell you are talking about so FUCK you.  and the horse you road in on.

Ex
Ex

Angry Whiteguy...I spent 40 consecutive years in TDCJ. Most guys who talked tough wound up as somebody's punk.

DWL76708
DWL76708

Everybody in prison is somebodys brother, son or father. I am so sorry for your loss. I feel TDJC is totally irresponsible  for the inhumane manner in which prisoners are being contained. My brother is at the Hutchins unit now  serving a 6 month sentence...he 56 & has health issues...i just got off the phone with an officer at Hutchins & was told they have ONE extra fan & are given more water as a result of the heat....Simply not good enough! I pray my brother makes it home alive after serving his 6 month sentence for his petty crime. I am so sorry for your the loss. Diana

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