As a personal injury attorney, I file wrongful death lawsuits, and I like to stay informed about major wrongful death cases throughout the state. Recently, wrongful death lawsuits have been filed in Austin against state prisons over the prisoners who died from heat related causes last summer. What’s happening in Austin courtrooms today could set precedents for cases across the state and even the nation.
The McCollum Story
The Texas Civil Rights Project and Austin attorney Jeff Edwards are suing the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for the wrongful death of Larry Gene McCollum who died of hyperthermia last summer in a Dallas jail. McCollum entered Hutchins State Jail in July when he was convicted of forgery and sentenced to eleven months. The 58-year-old father was overweight but in reasonably good health when he arrived at Hutchins. The temperature inside the jail was only slightly cooler than outside. Prison employees are supposed to give out additional water and fans to inmates under these conditions. McCollum was new to the prison and did not yet have the identification card that he needed to receive water or a fan. After three days of heat and dehydration, McCollum collapsed. His body temperature was over 109 degrees when he was taken to the hospital. He was unable to recover and died on July 28, 2011.
McCollum’s son Stephen McCollum expressed his shock and grief at the harsh conditions that caused his father’s death at a press conference in Austin. He said, “For this to happen to any human being is beyond my belief. There’s pets in pounds that have better conditions.” Sadly, Stephen McCollum is not the only one to lose a loved one from prison heat conditions. There have been many deaths and debilitating injuries as a result of a lack of air conditioning. The Texas Civil Rights Project believes that there were at least nine deaths last summer alone including inmates Togonidze, Martone and James. The non-profit has filed lawsuits like these in the past including a 2008 case where a prisoner became ill in what expert’s determined was a cell with a heat index of 134 degrees.
Texas Adheres to a Lower Standard
Last summer’s deaths are indicative of an on-going health risk within Texas prisons. Of the 111 prisons owned by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, only 21 are fully air conditioned. Many of the partially air-conditioned facilities do not have air conditioning in the cells where inmates spend most of their time. According to state law, county jails must have a temperature no higher than 85 degrees, but state prisons don’t have to conform to county jail standards. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has also chosen to ignore the national standard set by the American Correctional Association which recommends that temperature and humidity be mechanically lowered to an acceptable level. As temperatures rise this summer, reports of more incidents are expected to come through. There have been sixteen heat-related illness reported in 2012 alone, and that number will only go up.
Don’t Get Too Comfortable
One argument against air-conditioning is that it will make prisoners too comfortable. Comfort is not something that prisoners should enjoy, but scorching heat isn’t just a discomfort; it’s a threat to your health. The perception that air condition is a luxury in jails where the heat index has been measured at 134 degrees is simply false. It’s not a luxury if the alternative is at least nine deaths in a single summer. The state of Texas has the death penalty for certain crimes that are judged with due process to deserve that extreme sentence, but the sentence for small-time crook and father McCollum was supposed to be less than a year in Dallas’ Hutchins Sate Jail, not death by hyperthermia. Once is an accident, but multiple deaths each summer in Texas’ prisons isn’t an accident – it’s a choice.
Cruel and Unusual: One Basis for the Suit
One of the core principles in this suit is the idea of “cruel and unusual punishment.” The Constitution outlaws cruel and unusual punishment but doesn’t elaborate on the many different kinds of punishments and environments that can be defined as cruel or unusual. Some practices are obviously barbaric like the electric chair or burning someone alive. In today’s modern world, a non-air-conditioned jail during a Texas’ summer could be considered cruel and unusual. With body temperatures of over 109 degrees, the inmates listed in these suits literally burned to death on the inside with autopsies that indicated heat stroke and hyperthermia. While it may not be as dramatic as medieval-style punishments, the results are still fatal. A prison with an indoor heat index that is rated as dangerous or even extremely dangerous is a serious hazard. One of the aspects in these lawsuits, and of any wrongful death case, is that death could have been avoided. There is no reason in civilized nation like the United States that someone should die because it was too hot outside. The Department of Justice could have prevented these deaths, the question is, why didn’t they?
The Texas government has not responded well to the allegations and has replied in a way The New York Times referred to as “not sympathetic” after conducting interviews with state leaders. Chairman of the State Senate Criminal Justice Committee, Democratic State Senator John Whitmire told The New York Times, “Texans are not motivated to air-condition inmates. These people are sex offenders, rapists, murderers. And we’re going to pay for their air-conditioning when I can’t go down the street and provide air-conditioning to hard-working taxpaying citizens?”
Are Texans really unmotivated to improve the system? There are more than 170,000 people incarcerated in Texas and more than 55,000 are from right here in Dallas. Burglary of habitation (habitation is a legal word for home) is the most common crime resulting in incarceration in Texas. As for the crimes that Senator Whitmore mentions – sexual assault, rape and murder – none of those three even make the top five most common crimes that prisoners are serving time for. So let’s start our analysis of Whitmore’s statement by understanding that the majority of prisoners are not those offenders.
Additionally, no one expects to treat prisoners like our own law-abiding neighbors, but even in their condition they have certain rights and needs. As a taxpayer I already pay for inmates’ food, water, electricity, plumbing, healthcare and recreation – just as I pay the taxes that fund the judicial system which takes criminals off my friendly neighborhood street and incarcerates them in the first place. Like most people, I can’t say that I really enjoy paying taxes, but it is my responsibility as a citizen and it is my responsibility as an American to want the prisoners in our state to survive the summer heat. There are numerous expenses associated with the Texas prison system and there is no reason why air conditioning shouldn’t be one of the essential needs like food and water that is met.
Discussions about the massive Texas prison system often come down to dollars and cents. For all our complaints, it’s not always easy to calculate how much our decisions cost. Adding air conditioning units would be expensive, but the need is great and will only grow over time. At the end of the day no matter how the numbers shake out, the monetary cost was never meant to out weight the human cost. The pending lawsuits will serve as a reminder to the government of the emotional and monetary price of neglect.
Lawyers Step In
Over the Fourth of July holiday, we all spent time appreciating our freedom and independence. We watched fireworks and listened to the national anthem. It’s easy to be patriotic when faced with potato chips and sparklers, but it’s more difficult to stand up for the constitution when it involves moral issues we’d rather ignore or government legislators we’d prefer not to offend. The eighth amendment against cruel and unusual punishment is as essential as any of our other freedoms, and it’s important for lawyers and citizens alike to step in to remind the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that human rights are important no matter what you’ve done. So turn up the AC Texas, it’s going to be a hot summer.
Category: Latest Legal News