In Texas, Arguing That Heat Can Be a Death Sentence for Prisoners
Mary Lou James, the mother of Kenneth Wayne James, 52, who was found in his cell with a body temperature of 108 degrees.
Published: July 28, 2012
- HOUSTON — Last summer’s record-breaking heat wave had a grim impact on Texas, playing a role in the deaths of roughly 150 people. Many of them were found in their homes or apartments, but a few were discovered somewhere else — in their prison cells.
Ten inmates of the state prison system died of heat-related causes last summer in a 26-day period in July and August, a death toll that has alarmed prisoners’ rights advocates who believe that the lack of air-conditioning in most state prisons puts inmates’ lives at risk.
The 10 inmates were housed in areas that lacked air-conditioning, and several had collapsed or lost consciousness while they were in their cells. All of them were found to have died of hyperthermia, a condition that occurs when body temperature rises above 105 degrees, according to autopsy reports and the state’s prison agency.
Other factors contributed to their deaths. All but three of them had hypertension, and some were obese, had heart disease or were taking antipsychotic medications, which can affect the body’s ability to regulate heat.
One inmate, Alexander Togonidze, 44, was found unresponsive in his cell at an East Texas prison called the Michael Unit at 8 a.m. on Aug. 8 with a body temperature of 106 degrees, according to prison documents. The temperature in his cell, taken by prison officials 15 minutes after he was pronounced dead, was 86.2 degrees and the heat index was 93 degrees.
Five days later, at the nearby Gurney Unit prison, Kenneth Wayne James, 52, was found in his cell with a body temperature of 108 degrees. His autopsy report stated Mr. James most likely died of “environmental hyperthermia-related classic heat stroke,” noting several risk factors, including Mr. James’s chronic illness and use of a diuretic, and the lack of air-conditioning.
“We were looking for him to come home in a few months,” said Mary Lou James, the mother of Mr. James, who had been charged with injuring a child and was serving a five-year sentence for violating probation. “I think that’s just awful, to have a place like that where you don’t have any air. I don’t think human beings should be treated in that manner.”
Officials with the prison agency, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said 12 inmates had died of heat-related causes since 2007. The debate over the lack of air-conditioning in the prison system has intensified in recent weeks, after lawyers from the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project sued the agency in federal court over one of the inmate deaths from last summer. They also plan to file additional wrongful-death lawsuits.
Of the 111 prisons overseen by the agency, only 21 are fully air-conditioned, and inmates and their advocates have argued that the overheated conditions during triple-digit summers violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Prison officials dispute those claims, saying that the health and well-being of the inmates are their top priorities and that the autopsies of the 12 inmates who died list a variety of contributing factors to their deaths. They said they take steps to help inmates on hot days, including restricting outside work activities and providing extra water and ice.
“It is unknown whether the lack of air-conditioning was a contributing factor in the offender deaths,” Jason Clark, a prison system spokesman, said in a statement. “Texas experienced one of the hottest summers on record in 2011. It was an unprecedented event affecting the entire state and much of the southern and eastern United States. T.D.C.J. took precautions to help mitigate the impact of temperature extremes on offenders and staff. The agency continues to do so.”
But a corrections supervisor who works at a prison where one of the 12 inmates died said the number of heat-related fatalities was a cause of concern, as was the larger number of inmates and corrections officers who require medical attention because of the heat.
At least 17 prison employees or inmates were treated for heat-related illnesses from June 25 through July 6, according to agency documents. Many of them had been indoors at the time they reported feeling ill.
At the Darrington Unit near Rosharon on June 25, a 56-year-old corrections officer fainted in a supervisor’s office and was taken to a hospital. Heat exhaustion was diagnosed. At the four-story Coffield Unit near Palestine, where one inmate died of hyperthermia last August, dozens of windows have been broken out — prisoners slip soda cans or bars of soap into socks and throw them at the windows, hoping to increase ventilation.
“I’m supposed to be watching them, I’m not supposed to be boiling them in their cells,” said the corrections supervisor, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. “If you’ve got a life sentence, odds are you’re going to die in the penitentiary. But what about the guy who dies from a heat stroke who only had a four-year sentence? His four-year sentence was actually a life sentence.”
One of the 10 inmates who died last summer, Larry Gene McCollum, 58, a prisoner at the Hutchins State Jail outside Dallas, had a body temperature of 109.4 degrees. Nine days before his death in his cell, the indoor temperatures at Hutchins were routinely recorded by prison officials and ranged from 100 degrees to 102 degrees, according to agency documents.
Those temperatures exceed those allowed by a state law requiring county jails to maintain temperature levels between 65 and 85 degrees in occupied areas. But the law applies only to county jails, not to state prisons.
“After this many deaths, prison officials obviously know this is a problem,” said David C. Fathi, director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, in Washington. “Prisons aren’t supposed to be comfortable, nor are they supposed to kill you.”
State Senator John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said he was not alarmed by the number of deaths, noting that the overall state inmate population exceeds 150,000. Keith Price, the former warden of the Coffield Unit, agreed.
“Just from a statistical standpoint, that’s really not significant, particularly when you consider the population,” Mr. Price, an associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at West Texas A&M University, said of the 12 deaths. “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.”
Prison officials said that air-conditioning had not been installed in many buildings because of the additional construction and utility costs, and that retrofitting them would be an extraordinary expense.
Prisoners’ rights advocates said that treating inmates who become ill from the heat is just as costly, and that retrofitting entire buildings was not the only possible solution. They said allowing medically high-risk inmates to spend time in air-conditioned areas would be one improvement.