HOUSTON—After you walk past the guard towers and razorwire-topped fences and walk into a Texas prison, one of the many things you can’t help noticing on a summer day is how many inmates walk around in their underwear. And after a few minutes walking around the concrete and steel cell blocks, you realize why: the temperature.
“(It’s) hot,” said State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. “I was hot.”
So hot it’s killing Texas prison inmates, prison activists said. During July and August of last year at least ten inmates died heat-related deaths, they said, and all of them lived in cells that were not air conditioned.
“The old, the weak, the infirm, people with other complications like liver cancer, hepatitis-C related stuff, have been dying from heat prostration for some time,” said Ray Hill, a prison activist and longtime host of a radio show on prison issues.
Dozens of Texans died during the heat wave that swept the state last year. The numbers vary, depending on whose count you want to believe, but the National Weather Service concluded that 46 Texans died of heat-related causes during 2011.
Now, some relatives of Texas convicts who died during the heat wave are going to court, arguing that high temperatures inside prison cells violate the constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. They point to state records indicating that heat indexes outside at least one prison last year surpassed 150 degrees. And they’ve obtained autopsy documents detailing agonizing deaths inside sweltering prison cells.
The Texas Civil Rights Project has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the family of Larry Gene McCollum, who died last summer at the Hutchins State Jail in Dallas. During a week when outdoor heat indexes exceeded 130 degrees, McCollum suffered a seizure. He was hospitalized with a body temperature of 109 degrees, the lawsuit said, then slipped into a coma and died.
Guards noticed that another inmate, Kenneth Wayne James, was “acting delirious and urinating on the walls” about 45 minutes before they found him passed out in his cell. An autopsy attributed his death to “classic heat stroke.”
State officials point out that many of the inmates suffered from other conditions that put them at higher risk for heat-related deaths. Some of them were morbidly obese. James, like many others, had high blood pressure, a condition possibly connected to his history of abusing cocaine.
“I’m sorry about the conditions, but I guess I could be real direct and say, you know, if you don’t want to be there, don’t commit a crime,” Whitmire said.
About 150,000 inmates are locked up in Texas prisons; giving the state’s penal system a population roughly triple that of Galveston. During any given year, state officials argue, some of the people in that population will die.
Prison officials have long argued that Texas taxpayers wouldn’t tolerate spending money on air conditioning for convicts.
“We have limited taxpayer dollars and resources,” Whitmire said. “And we need to use it as best we can. And it’s not going to be spent for air conditioning of our prisons.”