TCRP’s efforts for elderly and medically fragile prisoners
By MANNY FERNANDEZ
AUSTIN, Tex. — In the brutal heat of summer, many Texans flee to shopping malls, movie theaters and other air-conditioned havens to keep cool. But for one segment of the population, there is literally no escape from triple-digit temperatures: state prison inmates.
Only 21 of the 111 prisons overseen by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the state prison agency, are fully air-conditioned. Many of the prisons that do have air-conditioning in areas where medical services or educational programs are provided to inmates do not offer it in the sections where they live.
Inmates and their families have complained for years about the heat and lack of air-conditioning in the summertime, but the issue has taken on a new urgency. An appeal is pending in a lawsuit initially filed in 2008 by a former inmate claiming that 54 prisoners were exposed to Death Valley-like conditions at a South Texas prison where the heat index exceeded 126 degrees for 10 days indoors. And several inmates at other prisons died of heat-related causes last summer; a lawsuit was filed Tuesday in one of those deaths.
Texas has long had a reputation for running some of the toughest prisons in the country, but inmates and their advocates say the overheated conditions violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. They accuse prison officials of failing to supply enough fans, ventilation and water and refusing to follow local and national prison standards.
“These conditions are shockingly dangerous,” said Scott Medlock, director of TCRP’s Prisoners’ Rights Program. “Housing prisoners in these temperatures is brutal. If TDCJ officers locked a dog in a hot car, they would go to prison for animal cruelty. . . ” — See the press release at TCRP Blog
A Texas law requires county jails to maintain temperature levels between 65 and 85 degrees, but the law does not apply to state prisons. The American Correctional Association recommends that temperature and humidity be mechanically raised or lowered to acceptable levels.
“The Constitution doesn’t require a comfortable prison, but it requires a safe and humane prison,” said Scott Medlock, director of the prisoners’ rights program at the Texas Civil Rights Project, which is representing the former South Texas inmate who sued prison officials. “Housing prisoners in these temperatures is brutal.”
Four inmates died of heat-related causes last summer. Eugene Blackmon is suing over conditions in a prison in the summer of 2008. “It felt like an oven,” he said.
A prison agency spokesman, Jason Clark, said that many prison units were built before air-conditioning was commonly installed, and that many others built later in the 1980s and 1990s did not include air-conditioning because of the additional construction, maintenance and utility costs. Retrofitting prisons with air-conditioning would be extremely expensive, he said.
As a result, the agency takes a number of steps to assist inmates, Mr. Clark said, and he disputed the criticisms of inmates and their lawyers about inadequate fans, water and ventilation. On hot summer days, he said, prison officials restrict outside activity, provide frequent water breaks, allow additional showers, permit inmates to wear shorts and increase airflow by using blowers normally used to move warm air in the winter.
“The agency is committed to making sure that all are safe during the extreme heat,” Mr. Clark said in a statement.
Despite those measures, four inmates — Larry Gene McCollum, 58; Alexander Togonidze, 44; Michael David Martone, 57; and Kenneth Wayne James, 52 — died last summer from heat stroke or hyperthermia, according to autopsy reports and the authorities. Advocates for inmate rights believe that at least five others died from heat-related causes last summer.
On Tuesday, the Texas Civil Rights Project and an Austin lawyer filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Mr. McCollum’s wife, son and daughter. They accused prison officials of causing his death by keeping him in the sweltering Hutchins State Jail outside Dallas, where he had a seizure around 2 a.m. on July 22 and fell from his bunk bed.
When Mr. McCollum, who weighed 345 pounds and had hypertension, arrived at a Dallas hospital, his body temperature was 109.4 degrees. He died six days later. The cause of death was hyperthermia, the autopsy report said. Mr. McCollum was “in a hot environment without air-conditioning, and he may have been further predisposed to developing hyperthermia due to morbid obesity” and use of a diuretic for hypertension, the report noted.
“For this to happen to any human being is beyond my belief,” said Mr. McCollum’s son, Stephen, 30, at a news conference in Austin announcing the lawsuit. “There’s pets in pounds that have better conditions.”
Nearly two weeks after Mr. McCollum died, Mr. Togonidze and Mr. Martone died of hyperthermia on the same August day in different prisons. Five days later, Mr. James was found unresponsive at 3 a.m. at a prison near the East Texas town of Palestine. His body temperature was 108 degrees, and the cause of death was “most likely environmental hyperthermia-related classic heat stroke,” according to the autopsy report. Like Mr. McCollum, Mr. James had hypertension.
Mr. Clark, the prison agency spokesman, said it was unknown whether the lack of air-conditioning was a factor in the deaths. The agency does not comment on pending litigation, he said.
Eugene Blackmon, 67, the former South Texas inmate who sued, said the conditions inside the C-8 dormitory at the Garza East prison caused him to have headaches, blurred vision and nausea. Mr. Blackmon was an inmate there in the summer of 2008 for a parole violation on a stolen-goods charge.
After he filed his lawsuit, his lawyers hired an expert who took measurements inside the dorm in 2010 and retroactively calculated the indoor temperatures for the summer of 2008. The heat index inside reached a high of 134, the expert determined.
“It felt like an oven,” said Mr. Blackmon, whose lawsuit was denied by a lower court and now awaits a ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. “These bodies are throwing off heat. We would take a wet towel sometimes and put it over us to try to keep cool. The water we drank was from the sinks. If you had a cup, you drank with the cup. If not, you drank with your hand.”
In court documents, the state attorney general’s office, which is representing the prison officials, denied Mr. Blackmon’s accusations, saying that he made no complaints of a heat-related illness or vision problems at the time and that his blood pressure readings improved rather than worsened over time. An air handler ventilating the dormitory, an industrial fan and a rooftop purge fan — in addition to extra shower privileges and ice water three times a day — increased the level of comfort in the C-8 dorm, the state’s lawyers argued.
State Senator John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston and chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said he was concerned about the inmate deaths but wanted to examine the circumstances of each. He said he was not sympathetic to complaints about a lack of air-conditioning, partly out of concern about the costs, but also out of principle.
“Texans are not motivated to air-condition inmates,” he said. “These people are sex offenders, rapists, murderers. And we’re going to pay for their air-conditioning when I can’t go down the street and provide air-conditioning to hard-working, taxpaying citizens?”