Larry McCollum, 58, lasted just one week in prison before suffering a fatal heatstroke on his bed in the middle of the night.
He arrived at the Hutchins Unit on July 15, 2011, amid one of Texas's hottest summers on record, and was to serve 11 months for the crime of writing a hot check. Temperatures in the un-air-conditioned prison were between 109 and 111 degrees, with a heat index of roughly 150 degrees for at least four hours in a row on July 19. Even though prisoners are supposed to receive regular refills of ice water during extreme heat, McCollum did not yet own a cup because he didn't have access to the prison commissary for at least 30 days. There were two industrial fans to cool off the 58 men he lived with, and none of the inmates had personal fans because there were no electrical outlets.
On the night of July 22, McCollum was found convulsing on his bed bunk. Prison staff called 911 one hour later. Upon arrival at the hospital, his body temperature was found to be 109 degrees.
McCollum was one of ten prisoners to die from the heat that summer alone, and one of 22 since 1998. While his family has filed a separate wrongful death lawsuit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, his death and those of the 21 other men have become a rallying cry in the additional class action lawsuit filed against the state prison agency, demanding relief from the hellish living conditions and for air-conditioned dormitories in the summer months. This week, an injunction hearing wrapped up in federal court, including testimony from the prisoners who endure the heat and from prison administrators (whose offices are air-conditioned) who said the heat was not a dire problem and that air-conditioning would cost between $22 million and $120 million to install at single prisons.
"Here's the fundamental flaw in their argument: They act like the money matters," said plaintiffs attorney Jeff Edwards. "You're talking about a human right, about safe housing, and they're talking about money. If it's $500,000 or a million or $20 million, it's irrelevant when you're talking about human life. And that is what we're talking about, because 22 people have died."
Edwards said that animals are treated better than this — but at TDCJ that's not hyperbole. In the original complaint filed against TDCJ, the inmates' attorneys point to TDCJ's climate-control policy for the "hog barns." To ensure "pig comfort," the pigs must not be kept in temperatures above 85 degrees. The pigs must live in a “comfortable environment with ventilation," the policy says. "Animals shall never be handled or housed in a manner that does not provide these essentials."
So why can't humans in the prison receive the same "essentials"?
Lawyers for the state repeatedly argued that prisoners have regular access to ice water, fans, two cold showers per day, and what's called "respite," designated air-conditioned areas in the prison where inmates can go to cool down if they tell guards they need to get out of the heat. (This practice didn't begin until more than a year after the lawsuit was filed, and wasn't widely used, with more than 100 prisoners taking advantage at one time, until last week, while the injunction hearing was underway.)
But when Michael Denton, a prisoner at the Wallace Pack Unit, took the stand Thursday, it didn't seem like TDCJ's perceived solutions to the heat were much respite at all.
Crammed with roughly 70 other men in between the shelves of the law library — a "respite" area — Denton said it felt okay, up until when the a/c stopped, and then a bunch of sweaty men were heating the place up on their own.
Asked about how much relief the cold showers really provide, Denton said, "The building we live in is more or less like a warehouse, and it absorbs the heat. There are no windows. It gets muggy. So as soon as you can towel off, honestly, you're already sweating again."
How about the fans?
"Fans don't make much difference," he said. "It's like sitting in front of a hot blow-dryer. It seems more detrimental than helpful, sir."
The mom of a man incarcerated down south at a state jail in Edinburg told the Houston Press she tried to send her son a battery-powered fan, since he did not have an electrical outlet for the kind he can buy from commissary. But prison officials told her it wasn't allowed, because prisoners use batteries to make tattoo guns. She said her son cannot sleep at night because of the unbearable fevers.
In TDCJ's eyes, however, the existing measures are enough, and it's why the facilities don't need air conditioning, beyond the fact that TDCJ claims the basic modern appliance is massively cost prohibitive. TDCJ's expert testified that, at the Pack Unit, where Denton lives, it would cost $22 million to retrofit the facility with air conditioning.
By contrast, the plaintiffs' expert testified it would cost $450,000.
Plaintiffs attorney Mike Singley said that TDCJ's cost estimate stems from the fact that the department is imagining state-of-the-art, "gold-plated Rolls Royce, diamond-dust-on-top" air-conditioning units, as well as complying with every building code imaginable, be it recommended or suggested. "We're not trying to do a fancy office building here," Singley said. "We're trying to make it workable."
The $21 million difference also substantially boils down to which building code standards engineers are choosing to follow or ignore. The plaintiffs produced documents showing that TDCJ had full discretion to decide which building codes to comply with in its bare-bones prisons, and that's why the plaintiffs' engineering expert projected costs for an a/c unit that complied with minimal standards. Meanwhile, TDCJ put forth the Paradoxical Argument of the Year: Saying it would opt to comply with every single building code standard in order to ensure inmate and staff safety, prison officials reached the conclusion that a/c would therefore be too expensive to install. And therefore prisoners are apparently safer suffering in the 100-degree heat.
"Their argument is it costs too much money if we do everything to meet safety standards — after ignoring those safety standards when they built the prison," Edwards said.
U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison is expected to issue an order on the case in July, saying he does not wish to delay the case any longer as the heat will only grow more sweltering as the summer wears on.
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