In Texas Prisons, 14 People Have Died After Being Forced to Endure 120 Degree Heat
Fourteen people have died of heat stroke in Texas prisons since 2007, needless deaths the state could prevent with a few air-conditioners, a grieving mother claims in court.
Ramona Hinojosa, mother of the late Albert Hinojosa, sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, its executive director Brad Livingston, the University of Texas Medical Branch, and five other TDCJ officials in Federal Court. UTMB provides health care to 80 percent of Texas prisoners under a partnership with the state.
Hinojosa died in the state's Garza West Unit in Beeville, where the windows are sealed shut and the "prison housing areas are like an oven," Ramona Hinojosa says in the lawsuit. But the warden and other officials keep their offices in the prison cooled to a comfortable 75 degrees, she says.
"On August 29, 2012, shortly after midnight, a prisoner told an officer working in Hinojosa's dorm that he fell out his bed and was suffering convulsions," the complaint states.
"The officer came to Hinojosa's bunk, and found him lying on the floor. His skin was hot to the touch, and he was unresponsive. The officer immediately called her supervisor. Because there was no 24-hour medical staff at the prison, the supervisor called 911.
"The ambulance arrived around 1:30 am, and rushed Hinojosa to the hospital. But it was too late. He was pronounced dead at 1:50 am. He was only 44."
An autopsy showed he died from hyperthermia, a condition brought on when a body produces more heat than it dissipates. The record-breaking heat of 2011 was deadly for Texas inmates: 10 died from heat stroke that year, but officials did nothing about it, Hinojosa says.
"In fact, high-level TDCJ officials did not consider these deaths a problem," the complaint states. "In fact, in the face of these deaths, one official, who was responsible for overseeing prisons where eight previous deaths occurred, testified TDCJ was doing a 'wonderful job' and '[didn't] have a problem with heat-related deaths.' Thus, defendants took no action to protect future prisoners, like Hinojosa, in the face of TDCJ's obviously inadequate procedures." (Brackets in complaint.)
Hinojosa claims the lack of air-conditioning for human inmates is "all the more shocking as TDCJ purchases and maintains climate-controlled swine barns to house pigs raised for slaughter."
But high-ranking TDCJ officials have said they consider prisoner air-conditioning a "waste of money," the complaint states.
The Texas Legislature is aware of the issue, Hinojosa says. She claims that in 2011 state representative Sylvester Turner wrote a letter to Livingston "expressing his concern about the high temperatures in TDCJ prisons, that 'temperatures inside cells have reached as high as 120 degrees during the day and do not fall below 100 degrees at night.' He asked TDCJ to take 'any and all preventive measures ... to ensure that inmates and guards inside TDCJ do not suffer.'"
Livingston refused to make any changes to the TDCJ's policies, Hinojosa says. Texas county jails are required to keep indoor temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees, Hinojosa says.
Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, said he agrees with Hinojosa.
"Yes, I think Texas prisons should be air-conditioned to conform with the norms of a civilized society," Wright said in an email. "I am surprised the guards tolerate it as a working-conditions issue, but then they are only subjected to it 40 hours a week.
"Florida death row prisoners filed a suit over excessive heat a few years ago and lost. But as a practical matter, except for some former Confederate states in the South, like Florida and Texas, who deliberately do not air-condition their prisons to make a sadistic point, the rest of the country has heated and air-conditioned prisons for both the prisoners and the staff," Wright wrote.
Ramona Hinojosa seeks punitive damages for wrongful death and violations of civil rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act. She is represented by Jeff Edwards of Austin