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Michael Phelan
Michael Phelan
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Prisoners “Boiling to Death” In Their Cells

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A New York Times article on the Texas prison system entitled, "In Texas, Arguing That Heat Can Be A Death Sentence for Prisoners," exposes a shameful problem that exists in jails and prisons throughout America–prisoners dying from hyperthermia or cooking to death in their cells. The Times reports that last summer, in a 26-day period in July and August, ten Texas inmates died of heat-related causes. Texas experienced one of the hottest summers on record in 2011. The summer of 2012 looks like it might break heat records across the country.

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. One such Texas inmate, Kenneth James, 52, was due to be released in a few months when officials found him in dead in his cell with a body temperature of 108 degrees. His autopsy report stated that Mr. James most likely died of "environmental hyperthermia-related classic heat stroke." His mother said, "I don't think human beings should be treated that way."

A corrections supervisor who works at a prison where one of the inmates died said the number of heat-related fatalities was a cause of concern, as was the larger number of inmates and corrections officers who require medical attention because of the heat. 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, Texas, 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.

“I’m supposed to be watching them, I’m not supposed to be boiling them in their cells,” said the corrections supervisor, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. “If you’ve got a life sentence, odds are you’re going to die in the penitentiary. But what about the guy who dies from a heat stroke who only had a four-year sentence? His four-year sentence was actually a life sentence.”

This problem is not limited to Texas. Here in Richmond, Virginia, our local paper reported today that the death rate at the Richmond jail far outpaces the national average.

The mortality rate for inmates at the overheated and chronically overcrowded Richmond jail was 2.5 times higher than the average annual death rate at jails of similar size across the country from 2000 through 2007, the most recent years for which comparable national data were available.

These are the conclusions of Dr. Marc Stern, who does consulting work for the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security. "The difference is striking enough that it should prompt a review of the original cases," Stern said, referring to the Richmond jail's higher death rate.

Stern's call for an evaluation of Richmond's jail deaths comes less than three weeks after Katrina Jones, a 19-year-old prisoner, died after she apparently strangled herself at the jail. She fatally injured herself after mental-health workers concluded she was not a threat to herself, even though she had tried to hang herself once before in front of deputies, according to sheriff's officials.

The City of Richmond, the Richmond Sheriff, and the Sheriff's Office also are facing a lawsuit involving a man, Grant Rollins Sleeper, 55, who died on June 26, 2010 of "Environmental Heat Exposure" at the Richmond City Jail, which has no air conditioning in the men's tier where Mr. Sleeper was being held. On June 18, 2010, Jail staff found Mr. Sleeper slumped over in bed, unresponsive to verbal communication, laboring to breathe, and registering a temperature of 104.5 degrees. An autopsy performed by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond noted that Mr. Sleeper's pre-death bladder temperature was 107.6 degrees. According to the Assistant Chief Medical Examiner, Mr. Sleeper's body revealed "hyperthermia" and dead tissue and hemorrhaging in the liver and kidneys, which findings were stated to be "attributable to marked increase in body core temperature with consequent multiple organ failure."

Our firm filed a Complaint on behalf of the personal representative of Mr. Sleeper's estate asserting that defendants, City of Richmond and C.T. Woody, Jr., Sheriff, were responsible for maintaining and operating the Jail, including in a manner that would not endanger the health and safety of the detainees/inmates held at the Jail. The Complaint further asserts that, for many years, however, the Defendants knew of the life-threateningly high temperatures and other inhumane conditions at the Jail. Nevertheless, at the time of Mr. Sleeper’s death, the Complaint alleges that the Defendants did nothing to remedy these conditions.

In Sunday's Richmond Times-Dispatch article, the Sheriff appears to lay the blame for all of Richmond's inmate deaths on the fact that a majority of the inmates come to the Jail with pre-existing physical and mental health problems. This may be true, but it is no excuse for allowing inmates to cook to death. Indeed, the Sheriff is on record for years voicing concern about the poor conditions, including overheating, at the Jail. The Jail was built in the 1960s to house 882 inmates, but the average daily population hovers at more than 1,300. A new jail is under construction and is scheduled to open in 2014, despite concerns that it will be overcrowded immediately. The new facility will have 1,032 beds.

Prior to joining our firm, partner Mark J. Krudys obtained a $2.4 million jury verdict against Sheriff Woody and the Richmond Jail's former chief physician in a wrongful death case resulting from the death of inmate James D. Robinson. The Robinson lawsuit alleged that Mr. Robinson died in March 2008 after medical staff and the jail failed to diagnose or properly treat his pneumonia.

2 Comments

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  1. HChilds says:
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    Thanks for bringing this to the public’s attention. The private prision system in Texas has longed lacked control. Who gives the prision system the right to usurp the judgement of the court system? They decide to re-sentence inmates and serve as judge, jury and executioner. Shame on Texas for their backward inhumane thinking… but I guess the death of a prisioner who was not originally sentenced to death will just evoke another “O0Ps” from Rick Perry. We need to change Texas from the top and bring it up to the 21st Century. They will reap judgement from what “they do the least.” And they call it a “bible-belt” state; who’s bible are they reading?

  2. Samantha says:
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    Thank you so much for addressing this issue of what effectively amounts to torture of Texas’ inmates. Weeks ago I started an online petition to the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice and Gov. Perry to put pressure on them for this issue. I believe that as much pressure as possible must be put on the TDCJ and Gov. Perry if we want to see this injustice changed, and I believe that getting at least 10,000 signatures can help put just that much more pressure on them.

    The url for the petition is:
    http://www.change.org/petitions/the-governor-of-tx-stop-torturing-inmates-with-130-degree-temperatures

    Please sign and share with friends in and out of state (or even in other countries; the more signatures the better!), and please don’t stop talking about this issue.