Heat in Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice Kills Prisoner: Family Files Suit

TCRP’s efforts for prisoners who are elderly and medically fragile

Press Release, June 26, 2012

Dallas, TX – The Texas Civil Rights Project and Austin attorney Jeff Edwards filed a wrongful death lawsuit today for the family of Larry Gene McCollum against Texas prison officials.

Mr. McCollum, 58, died of heat stroke in July 2011 at the Hutchins State Jail in Dallas after the indoor heat index reached almost 130 degrees. When Mr. McCollum was hospitalized after collapsing on July 22, 2011, doctors recorded his body temperature exceeded 109 degrees. That day, the high temperature in Dallas was 98 degrees with 79 percent humidity. The autopsy found he died from living “in a hot environment without air conditioning.”

Living areas in Texas Department of Criminal Justice prisons, including the Hutchins State Jail, are not air conditioned. When Mr. McCollum died, fans at the prison were broken or nonexistent, though officials knew temperature conditions were extremely dangerous. Prison policies prohibited Mr. McCollum from even having a cup to drink water from. When he arrived at the Hutchins State Jail, just weeks before his death, officers told him “welcome to Hell.”

“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. Doing this to human beings, no matter what crime they were convicted of, is unconscionable.” In summer 2011, nine prisoners died of heat-related illnesses across the state. “These high temperatures mean these men were sentenced to death,” said Medlock.

“My dad was supposed to do his time, then come home,” said Stephanie Kingrey, Mr. McCollum’s daughter. He was expected to serve less than two years for a forgery conviction. “I can’t believe TDCJ would do this. No one deserves to die like this.”

On the day Mr. McCollum died, the Dallas area endured 25 consecutive days where the temperature exceeded 100 degrees. According to the National Weather Service, “heat is the number one weather-related killer in the United States, resulting in hundreds of fatalities each year.”

On average, heat kills more people than “floods, lightening, tornadoes and hurricanes combined.” The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration identifies heat indexes over 130 degrees as “extremely dangerous.”

Federal courts have held prison temperatures over 90 degrees are unconstitutional. “Despite the Constitution making these conditions illegal, and their own policies warning them these temperatures are extremely dangerous, TDCJ continues to risk prisoners’ lives,” said Medlock.