A federal judge is putting the Texas prison system on trial over suffocating conditions of extreme heat due to lack of air conditioning in the summer.
Between 1998 and 2011, at least 21 inmates died of heat-related illnesses in prison, with ten of them dying in 2011 alone. And that count only includes inmates whose cause of death was specifically and solely due to the heat, not deaths in which heat was a contributing factor. In 2012, the family of a man who died of hyperthermia in the Hutchins State Jail sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, claiming top officials' indifference to the inhumane conditions of the prison led to Larry McCollum's death in 2011.
McCollum had been sentenced to serve 12 months in prison for the crime of writing a hot check — yet from the sounds of U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison's 83-page order, he might as well have been sentenced to serve time in the closest place on Earth to Hell.
McCollum arrived at the Hutchins unit on July 15, 2011, during one of Texas's hottest summers on record. Temperatures in the prison that week had been 109 to 112 degrees, with a heat index of roughly 150 degrees for at least four hours in a row on July 19 — which according to TDCJ's own "Heat and Humidity Matrix" meant heat stroke was "imminent." Inmates were supposed to receive ice water on a regular basis during this extreme heat, yet according to the judge's order the temperature of the water given to inmates was 75 to 80 degrees. McCollum did not even own a cup for water since he would need to purchase it from commissary, and new inmates could not access commissary for 30 to 45 days.
In the dorm home to 58 men including McCollum, there were only two ceiling fans and one on the floor, and inmates did not have access to personal fans because there were no electrical outlets. As for showers, TDCJ's executive director Brad Livingston claimed TDCJ had lowered the water temperature from 107 to 95 degrees. Judge Ellison also noted that the sealed windows only made things worse.
McCollum, who had a documented history of hyperthermia and had previously been on medication, was found convulsing on his top bunk on July 22. Almost an hour after jail staff discovered him, they finally called 911. Upon arrival at the hospital, his body temperature was found to be over 109 degrees. He died six days later.
He was the second of ten people to die that year of hyperthermia in a Texas prison. Six years later, the Hutchins Unit, and many others, still does not have air conditioning.
"Plaintiffs have adduced evidence that Larry McCollum’s tragic death was not simply bad luck, but an entirely preventable consequence of inadequate policies," Ellison wrote. "These policies contributed to the deaths of eleven men before McCollum and ten men after him."
The plaintiffs, McCollum's widow and two adult children, allege that, since Livingston was aware of at least two heat-related deaths, he should have taken preventative measures — such as installing air conditioning. Only wardens' offices, correctional officers' stations, and regional directors' offices have such a luxury during Texas summers, according to the order. Livingston claimed that, after learning of two people who died of heat-related illness in 2007, he didn't think TDCJ's heat-mitigation policies were inadequate because he thought these two "lone" deaths occurred under "extremely unique circumstances."
Let's put this plainly: The heat that literally killed two human beings in one summer, let alone 19 others since 1998 including ten in 2011, doesn't seem horrible enough to Livingston to warrant installing pretty standard, modern-day appliances like air conditioning.
When asked what the holdup is, TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark first responded by citing a cost analysis. According to TDCJ, it would cost upwards of $79 million to retrofit Hutchins with air conditioning, and north of $100 million for others. (The Press has requested to see the actual cost-analysis study in order to determine how analysts arrived at these numbers.)
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"Many of TDCJ’s facilities were built before the time that air conditioning was commonly installed," he wrote in an email. "Prisons built in the eighties and nineties, which were specifically approved by the federal courts in the Ruiz case, didn't include air conditioning because of the added construction, maintenance and utility costs. Retrofitting facilities with air conditioning would be extremely expensive."
But, asked to clarify whether the high cost prevents air conditioning from being installed, Clark backtracked and said no. Apparently, air conditioning just isn't necessary.
"We have system wide protocols in place help reduce heat related illnesses and mitigate the impact of temperature extremes," he wrote.
A jury is expected to hear all the evidence, although TDCJ plans to appeal the judge's ruling to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.