Forced to Endure Extreme Heat, Texas Prisoners Becoming Casualties of Climate Denial

Dangerous prison conditions likely to worsen as heat waves intensify with climate change

graphic depicting a prison

On a spring day in May, temperatures in Dallas, Texas, were already in the 90s. Sunlight glinted off the barbed wire perimeter outside the Hutchins State Jail, located just a mile down the road from Hutchins High School. The first blooms of Castilleja, colloquially known here as “prairie fire,” seemed to set a field across from the prison ablaze.

It was hot outside, but it was nothing compared to the temperatures inside the Hutchins Unit, one of 79 state-run prison units still lacking air-conditioning in its cellblocks in 2017. Even those temperatures, though, still pale further in comparison with the extreme summer heat wave that broiled the jail on July 28, 2011, pushing the heat index up to about 150 degrees in the cellblocks, according to the state’s own records, and transforming the jail into an oven that slowly baked Hutchins prisoner Larry McCollum alive.

McCollum, a 58-year-old cab driver from the Waco area, was found having convulsions in his top bunk. He was taken to Dallas’s Parkland Hospital, where his body temperature was measured at 109.4 degrees Fahrenheit. McCollum, who was incarcerated for writing a bad check, had recently begun serving his 11-month sentence, and was eager to get through his time and reunite with his wife and two children.

photo of fansPhoto by Rob Fahey The TDJC has acknowledged 22 heat-related deaths in its prison units. The deaths are likely the first few indications of what may be a much larger heat problem

“He was taken from us. He was supposed to go in for 11 months, and he wound up with a death sentence,” McCollum’s daughter, Stephanie Kingrey, said. “It was very heartbreaking that he had to sit there and suffer as long as he did before they got any help for him or got him to emergency room.”

Kingrey said that officials with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) even tried to deny her access to her father during the seven days he spent on life support at Parkland Hospital, eventually relenting as Kingrey and other relatives were forced to make the devastating decision to take McCollum off of life support.

“They had guards on him 24 hours, like he was just going to jump up and go somewhere, and he was handcuffed to the bed the whole time,” Kingrey says. “He was literally brain dead, and there was nothing he could do. He didn’t regain consciousness or anything. He wasn’t there. He died back in the prison cell.”

McCollum is one of 22 heat-related deaths that TDCJ has been forced to acknowledge in its prison units after litigation — 10 of those deaths occurring during that same 2011 summer heat wave. But these deaths are likely the first few indications of what may be a much larger heat problem.

“[TDCJ] has acknowledged the deaths because we proved we knew about them,” said Attorney Jeff Edwards, who is representing the McCollum family in an ongoing lawsuit against TDCJ, during an interview in his Austin office. “In fact, there are far more than [22] deaths because the only deaths that they count are confirmed autopsies with a diagnosis of hyperthermia. In order to get that diagnosis, you have to have a temperature north of 105 or 106 degrees [Fahrenheit]. So unless you find the body and do an autopsy quickly, you’re not going to have that diagnosis. [TDCJ] also doesn’t count the probably 100 or more people who suffered heart attacks in the summertime where heat was a contributing factor, or people who suffered asthmatic deaths because heat contributed to that.”

The medical risk of heat stroke increases significantly when the temperature rises to more than 90 degrees, and can lead to other causes of death like heart attacks. This is especially true for people with medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and other cardiovascular issues, as well as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The risk rises further still for people on medications that inhibit their ability to shed heat or sweat, or certain psychiatric medications. There aren’t yet full statistics on how many prison deaths have involved heat as a significant contributing factor, but the number is likely to be much higher than deaths directly attributable to hyperthermia.

“One death is enough to cause concern — two, three, you need to be reacting immediately,” Edwards says. “What is so frustrating about this is ... you can solve the problem of death by heat stroke in the Texas prison system instantaneously. All you need to do is lower the temperature and you eliminate it…. [TDCJ is] making a choice to have people die in the same way a car company makes a choice not to fix a defective product and have some people die. It’s the exact same cost-benefit analysis.”

Internal TDCJ emails obtained by Truthout and Earth Island Journal reveal that a database within TDCJ’s Health Services Division was developed to track not only heat-related deaths in TDCJ prison units, but also the number of instances of heat-related illness occurring across particular units. The datasets also track other factors contributing to the occurrence of heat-related illness, including how many of the prisoners experiencing these illnesses were on antipsychotic medications.

According to the records, staffers within the Health Services Division tracked a total of 46 heat-related illnesses in TDCJ units in 2010, 48 such illnesses between the months of June and July of 2011 alone, and another 59 illnesses between August 1 and August 16 of 2011. Health Services Division staffers tracked a total of 110 illnesses in 2011 through August 16 of that year, across scores of units. The records indicate that in 2011, a majority of prisoners were located in their cellblocks at the onset of the heat-related illness, and that several of the illnesses involved prisoners taking antipsychotic and other medications that make them more vulnerable to heat conditions.

Documents obtained by Earth Island Journal and Truthout track heat related deaths
and illlnesses in TDJC prison units. Click or tap this image to view additional documents.

While TDCJ Director of Public Information Jason Clark didn’t respond to Truthout and Earth Island Journal’s request for the total number of instances of heat-related illness within TDCJ units tracked by its Health Services Division, the records from 2010 and 2011 point to a pervasive heat problem within TDCJ cellblock areas. They also reveal that prison officials neglected to act: Despite tracking more than 100 instances of heat-related illness, they have yet to introduce climate controls in TDCJ cellblocks that currently lack them.

Edwards is litigating several other federal lawsuits over heat-related deaths inside Texas prisons. He is also working on cases that confront the desperate conditions for elderly and other medically vulnerable prisoners who are increasingly susceptible to extreme temperatures, including an ongoing class-action lawsuit in Houston challenging conditions in the Wallace Pack Unit near Navasota, a geriatric prison incarcerating predominantly elderly and disabled prisoners who require continuous medical care.

TDCJ officials are currently appealing US District Judge Keith Ellison’s certification of class status to all current and future prisoners at the Pack Unit subjected to extreme temperatures in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“To give you an idea of the heat we are talking about: When was the last time you jumped in your car after it has set in the sun with windows rolled up on a 90 degree day? Now try to sit in it for 20 minutes!!!,” writes 63-year-old prisoner John Ford, who is serving a 70-year sentence, from the Pack Unit. “The beds and cubicle wall are metal. They are hot and can’t be laid on or touched, like touching the hood of a car that has sit [sic] in the sun on a 130-degree day. Most of us try to wet our sheets and the cement floor. We lay in the water, put the sheet over us while blowing the fan under the sheet, to keep the body temps down.”

TDCJ’s solution during periods of extreme heat was to tell Pack Unit prisoners to simply drink more water, recommending up to two gallons of water a day on extremely hot days. There was just one problem: The water at the Pack Unit contained between 2.5 to 4.5 times the level of arsenic, a carcinogen, permitted by the EPA, according to court documents. Many of the prisoners drank thousands of gallons of this arsenic-tainted water for more than ten years before Judge Ellison ordered TDCJ to truck in clean water for the prisoners last year. TDCJ installed a modern filtration system in January. [Read Earth Island Journal and Truthout’s special investigation into America’s Toxic Prisons.]

“It used to be where you could take a white wash rag and put it in the sink and water would run on it about 10 or 15 minutes, and it would actually turn brown,” says Keith Cole, 63, a lead plaintiff in the lawsuit who is serving a life sentence at the Pack Unit.

It’s something the prisoners and their attorney say TDCJ knew about for years. “Inmates were breaking out with all kinds of skin issues, and skin cancers that still have been denied that it was caused by the water,” Ford writes.

Both Ford and Cole, who arrived at the unit in 2015 and 2011, respectively, worry about how their prolonged exposure to arsenic may have affected their health over the long term, including their specific medical issues. Cole has been diagnosed with severe coronary artery disease, type II diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol, and has had two stent implants. Ford has seven stent implants in his heart, high blood pressure, and “serious issues” with his bladder and kidney that he suspects are “from the chemicals.”

They also worry about how their prolonged stress during exposure to periods of extreme heat for years may have impacted them long term. Ford says he suffers respiratory problems he believes are exacerbated not only by the extreme heat in the unit during the summer months, but also by the black mold he alleges to be present inside the prison.

A spokesperson with the University of Texas Medical Branch, which manages medical care at TDCJ units through its Correctional Managed Care division, declined to comment on the heat exposure, citing ongoing lawsuits.

“TDCJ takes precautions to help reduce heat-related illnesses such as providing water and ice to staff and offenders in work and housing areas, restricting offender activity during the hottest parts of the day, and training staff to identify those with heat related illnesses and refer them to medical staff for treatment,” TDCJ Public Information Director Clark said. He also cited “access to respite areas” that are air-conditioned as a system-wide protocol that is utilized during periods of extreme heat.

Cole says that while he, personally, is being granted regular access to a respite area at the Pack Unit, he believes this is only because he is the primary plaintiff in a major ongoing class-action lawsuit. For other prisoners at the unit, he says, it is a protocol that exists only on paper.

“Even though [TDCJ] claims they have enough space to put every offender on this unit into respite at the same time, if offenders starting using respite on a large scale, let’s say ... 20 percent of the inmates wanted to go to respite, that would pretty much shut down the day-to-day operations of this unit,” Cole says. “So what they do is they find low-visibility ways to discourage offenders from using respite.”

Cole says that prison officials regularly take Pack Unit prisoners to the infirmary, where nurses perform an internal core temperature check by inserting a thermometer into prisoners’ rectums. “That’s the first procedure they do before they do anything for you at all,” he says. So many prisoners avoid asking for respite in the first place.

The Wallace Pack Unit is not the only unit in Texas that lacks air-conditioning in its cellblocks. According to Clark, only 29 of 108 TDCJ units have air-conditioning in all “offender housing areas,” with all units having at least some areas that are air-conditioned.

Among the areas that TDCJ chooses to air-condition in its units are its prison armories and areas for livestock.

Guidelines from both the American Bar Association and the American Correctional Association (ACA) suggest that prison officials should provide adequate temperature control in cellblocks, but the ACA continues to accredit units lacking climate controls.

photo of Hutchins State JailPhoto Candice Bernd Outside the Hutchins State Jail in Dallas, Texas, where prisoner Larry McCollum died of heat stroke during a summer heat wave in July of 2011.

At this point, even unions representing prison guards, many of whom have also experienced heat-related illnesses and injuries while on duty, have been supportive of lawsuits over extreme heat in TDCJ units.

Truthout and Earth Island Journal didn’t receive any responsive records after requesting potential documents outlining TDCJ officials’ plans to adapt their protocols and procedures in light of ongoing anthropogenic climate disruption and expectations for intensifying heat waves across the state in the coming decades. The lack of documents indicates that the state’s prison officials may have no plans, outside TDCJ’s current existing heat policies, for mitigating temperatures as more heat waves sweep Texas in years to come.

Indeed, periods of intense heat are expected to accelerate in the state, according to climate scientists like Linda Mearns.

Mearns is a senior climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and conducted a climate study on the region around Navasota, Texas, where the Wallace Pack Unit is located. Analyzing datasets from nearby weather stations in the area in order to predict future extremes, she not only found that both maximum and minimum average temperatures from all six weather stations analyzed are steadily increasing, but that the likelihood of extreme summer heat waves is expected to increase dramatically.

“We looked at the likelihood of the recurrence of extreme summer temperatures at the level of that summer of 2011 ... and essentially, going out into a period, let’s say to 2035, we found that there’s a eight-fold increase in the likelihood of that kind of extreme event repeating itself,” Mearns says. “It’s very clear that temperatures are increasing, that extremes of temperatures are increasing [in the region].”

Mearns also looked at trends in the number of days per summer that have exceeded certain temperature thresholds that can be dangerous to certain risk groups if left exposed. She looked at thresholds of 88, 95 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit and found that days exceeding those temperatures have been steadily increasing since 1970.

“In terms of the heat index, the major factor is still the temperature, so we see very distinct increases in the heat index, which is actually used to determine dangerous conditions for human health, and we see increases in those thresholds as well, for example, a heat index above 88 or above 95 for a particular length of time,” Mearns says. According to her research, the median value of days with a heat index above 95 or 100 degrees lasting more than four hours per day increases to more than 20 days by 2035, and 55 days by 2055 in the area around Navasota.

It’s the extremes that pose the greatest danger to vulnerable populations such as the elderly, or people with health conditions that render them at risk. According to Mearns, people for the most part become somewhat adapted to the climate that they live in, even as average temperatures increase. Extreme temperature changes, however, don’t allow enough time for the body to properly acclimate — one reason why nearly half of TDCJ’s confirmed hyperthermia deaths all occurred during the same 2011 heat wave.

According to Edwards, experts testifying on behalf of TDCJ have acknowledged the reality of climate disruption, but, “Internally, they are loathe to answer [the climate] question because they are appointees of [the governor], and that question is fraught with danger in an oil state like Texas,” he says. “They want to be looked at as tough on crime, and don’t view air-conditioning or costs associated with air-conditioning as priorities until the courts tell them they have to.”

Many of the state’s prisons were constructed during the “tough-on-crime” prison boom of the 1990s, which hit particularly hard in Texas. “It wasn’t as if [air-conditioning] was discussed,” Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, says. “The prisons were just built.”

According to Clark, many of TDCJ’s units that were built in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t include air-conditioning because of the added construction, maintenance, and utility costs. This lack of air-conditioning persisted, despite the far-reaching 1980 court ruling Ruiz v. Estelle, which found that conditions of imprisonment within the TDCJ prison system constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Although the decision was the result of one of the most far-reaching lawsuits on incarceration conditions in US history, it didn’t include conditions relating to extreme heat. Therefore, TDCJ units lacking air-conditioning in cellblocks continued to be approved by federal courts.

“One-hundred-thousand prison beds were constructed in a very crisis-oriented atmosphere where the goal was to build them very quickly and as cheaply as possible, to get these inmates out of the [county] jails [and into state prisons],” Deitch said. “When [the prisons] were constructed, the [state] legislature was never inclined to provide money, and the legislature help fund the construction of these facilities. They’re expensive enough to build, and the legislature was not going to give any money to cover the cost of air-conditioning. That was just seen as treating prisoners too well.”

The harsh sentencing practices of the ‘90s have left the state with a prison population that is now rapidly aging behind bars, and increasingly requiring extensive medical care. “In Texas with its super-long sentences ... the fastest-growing population is the geriatric population. With all of these inmates in un-air-conditioned facilities, I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more deaths in custody from people who can’t handle the heat,” Deitch says.

In Texas, the price of politicians’ and prison officials’ climate denial is human lives. Not only are the state’s aging prisoners being rendered casualties of climate change, they are held captive to changing climate conditions, unable to adapt to the increasing heat waves, and, in the case of Wallace Pack, forced to endure other environmental degradations and injustices — such as drinking arsenic-tainted water for more than 10 years — to cope.

“Our tough-on-crime mentality about sentencing is bumping up against our-tough-on crime mentality in terms of extreme conditions for prisoners, and I think it’s going to lead to some very tragic consequences, particularly as climate change makes the situation even worse,” Deitch says.

Indeed, over his 23 years in the TDCJ system, Cole says the summers have become more extreme. “It seems to be getting more hotter now. I don’t know if I can attribute that to the fact that temperatures are worse, or maybe the fact that I’m getting older and my diseases are progressing, but I know that the summers now are more intense to me than they were 10 years ago when I was in the system.”

This report is part of a collaborative series on on the environment and mass incarceration by Truthout and Earth Island Journal. It was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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