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Extreme Heat Waves Can Be A Death Sentence For Inmates Living In Poor Prison Conditions

By Tara Culp-Ressler  

"Extreme Heat Waves Can Be A Death Sentence For Inmates Living In Poor Prison Conditions"

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Extreme heat waves across the country have claimed hundreds of lives over the past few years, including at least 52 heat-related deaths between June 30 and July 6 alone. And prison inmates are especially at risk for succumbing to heat-related health issues, according to a federal court that has ruled in favor of an advocacy group that alleges Texas prison officials are violating prisoners’ constitutional rights with poor conditions during high-temperatures days.

Although federal courts have held that prison temperatures over 90 degrees are unconstitutional, the Texas Civil Rights Project claims that Texas prison facilities put their inmates’ lives in jeopardy by allowing indoor heat indexes to reach temperatures well over 100 degrees. Ten inmates of the state prison system died from heat-related causes over a ten-day period last summer, all of whom were housed in prison facilities without air-conditioning.

The Texas Civil Rights Project filed a lawsuit against state prison officials over the wrongful death of Larry Gene McCollum, who died last summer while serving just a two-year prison term. The advocacy group released a press release detailing the prison conditions at the time of McCollum’s death:

Mr. McCollum, 58, died of heat stroke in July 2011 at the Hutchins State Jail in Dallas after the indoor heat index reached almost 130 degrees. When Mr. McCollum was hospitalized after collapsing on July 22, 2011, doctors recorded his body temperature exceeded 109 degrees. That day, the high temperature in Dallas was 98 degrees with 79 percent humidity. The autopsy found he died from living “in a hot environment without air conditioning.”

Living areas in Texas Department of Criminal Justice prisons, including the Hutchins State Jail, are not air conditioned. When Mr. McCollum died, fans at the prison were broken or nonexistent, though officials knew temperature conditions were extremely dangerous. Prison policies prohibited Mr. McCollum from even having a cup to drink water from. When he arrived at the Hutchins State Jail, just weeks before his death, officers told him “welcome to Hell.”

In what the group’s director called “a huge victory for all Texas prisoners,” the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in their favor on Monday, determining that prison staff prison staff “were deliberately indifferent” to the conditions in the facility that contributed to McCollum’s death. The federal court agreed that extreme heat can violate prisoners’ rights.

This ruling may lead to significant reforms at Gov. Rick Perry’s (R-TX) Texas Department of Criminal Justice, where only 21 of the 111 units are fully air-conditioned. Considering the fact that extreme weather patterns are on the rise due to climate change, and heat-related deaths could increase by the thousands over the next few decades, prisoners can’t afford to wait for Perry’s appointees to address their substandard living conditions.

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