Saturday, July 28, 2012

NY Times: Heat a death sentence for ten Texas prisoners last summer

In a story today, the New York Times reported that:
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.
Less frequently discussed than the effects of heat on prisoners is the effect on staff:
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.
TDCJ disputes the numbers cited by the Times, claiming "12 inmates had died of heat-related causes since 2007." But if the Times is right that hyperthermia was listed in the autopsies as the cause of death for all ten men cited in the story, that claim seems a bit self serving. At a minimum, it sounds like inmates diagnosed with hypertension, heart disease or taking antipsychotic medications should be prioritized for removal from units without air conditioning. Grits understands it's unreasonable to expect every unit to be air conditioned anytime soon, at least short of a federal court order, even though A/C is mandated for county jails. But at this point, the risk factors that make heat-related death more likely are becoming pretty clear, and it's probable the state needs more air-conditioned units than it's got.

Regardless, I expect state officials to remain in a state of denial on the subject unless and until a federal court tells them otherwise. We should find out soon whether or not the Texas Civil Right Project will be allowed to take the first such case to trial. When that happens, the rhetorical and political dynamic surrounding the topic could change quite rapidly, particularly if the plaintiffs prevail.


sunray's wench said...

Most inmate advocates also accept that it would be impractical to air-condition all TDCJ units. But the newer ones could be improved for those suffering from conditions that are most likely to be exacerbated by high temperatures.

Something does need to be done to help the TDCJ staff though.

Nurseypooh said...

TDCJ is taking measures already (shocked) to move certain inmates with the above mentioned health conditions to cooler parts of the buildings at the unit where I used to work. We also had submitted 5 for unit transfer due to health concerns and the upcoming summer temp.s, 4 were approved and moved rather quickly. We were all suprised! It is unreasonable though to expect air conditioning from the state because the leg. won't5 approve an adequate amt. of money for their healthcare so how in the world will they get the money for the a/c! There are a small number of units that have a/c maybe they will relocate a lot of them to those units, not sure. I wouldn't doubt the inmates approved for transfer off of our unit to come back once it cools off a bit for the winter. I just don't see the beds available in the amt. needed for special needs offenders in this respect just like they don't have enough psych beds available. Just my two cents worth.

Prison Doc said...

Of course there is an easily identifiable common factor here. Whether it's air conditioners, cooled air, health care, mental health housing, or heat-related illness--too many people are locked up for the state to afford to care for them properly.

It's not a TDCJ problem, it is a legislature problem.

Release more nonviolent offenders. Let them cool themselves off.

ckikerintulia said...

Right on, Doc!

Anonymous said...

For those who may want to help immediately instead of waiting for the prisons to be air conditioned, send a check to TX-CURE Fan Project, P.O. Box 372, Burleson, TX 76097. Since 2002, the organization has provided fans for more than 5,600 inmates who, as certified by the Criminal Justice Department's ombudsman office, couldn't afford them.

Anonymous said...

9 years age the same comments were being made about the heat in TDCJ, and I personally do not see any changes. Depending on who is working, the fan in the dorm can be pointed straight at the CO and no one better move it in a different direction.
Sure the Co's are in the heat also, but only for their shift,and not 24/7. I agree with the over population being a factor in the care of inmates. Quit incarcerating everyone, just the violent offenders.

Anonymous said...

The CO don't have the opportunity to lay around in Thier underwear.

Anonymous said...

Has everyone forgotten about "swamp boxes"?? Those water cooled fans were all we had for cooling 'til the 60s. They are/were cheap and darned effective when you were hot!

Anonymous said...

The inmates don't usually have the chance to lay around in their underwear either, Anonymous. We were made to wear full uniforms and boots when I was at Gatesville, during the worst heat of the summer. And at night we had to be fully covered up with wool blankets at all times, wearing long heavy "nightgowns" instead of tshirt and shorts because anything less was considered an "attempt to escape".

dfisher said...

Can it be a surprise to anyone that the medical care for the inmates is the last thing UTMB or the TDCJ is concerned with.

The former El Paso Medical Examiner Paul Shrode, who could not pass the Pathology Board, even though he took the test many time, was just hire by UTMB to work at the Michaels Unit in Anderson Co.

This is the same Paul Shrode who claimed to have a law degree from TX State University in San Marcos, TX and gave false testimony in a death sentence case in Ohio resulting in the death sentence being set aside.

Would you believe anything this guy wrote in a prisoner's medical record, especially if the prisoner died?

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, a real life sized public hero (Ms. Samantha Herrington)has embarked on a mission to educate the public about this topic.

"Today we broke 3,500 signatures! Thank you to all of you who made this happen.

Across the state many people have already offered to pass out flyers at their local jail/prison/courthouse/etc., and some people have even donated money to help pay for them. I would like to thank these folks who will have helped this cause in such involved ways.

I personally printed out 300 flyers today and will be handing them out in downtown Fort Worth at the new jail. If you live near Fort Worth and would like to help, please keep in touch with me on the petition's new Facebook page ( or here on I will likely want to go there Tuesday, but I would like to make that decision with anyone willing to help.

If you live outside of Fort Worth and would like to pass out flyers, please contact me on or here on so I can email you a copy.

If you would like to pass out flyers but cannot afford the cost (about $35 for 300 copies), please let me know so I can get you some of the flyer fundraiser money.

A very special thanks to those who have signed, donated, or shared. Together we can change conditions for Texas inmates!"

-Samantha Herrington

Anonymous said...

My brother may be among one of the heat related deaths last year. He was at the Hightower Unit. My brother suffered from congestive heart failure and complained about the extreme heat. On Aug 27, 2011 in the late afternoon my mother received a call that my brother had passed away. My mother is elderly therefore she did not ask alot of questions. I called the warden and he told me that they had my brother airlifted to an area hospital where he died on arrival at approximately 2:00 p.m.
I was able to find out that my brother started complaining around 8:30 a.m. that morning and was taken to the Unit Medical facility.
It was well documented he suffered from congestive heart failure so what idiot kept him at the unit until early afternoon knowing he was in distress. I have no doubt my brother pleaded with them to get him to a hospital.

Debbie Pihota

Arachne646 said...

I'm sorry for your loss, Debbie.