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Lawsuits: At least 13 men overheated, died in un-air-conditioned Texas prisons

Prison officials say summer precautions taken to protect convicts, staff; attorneys allege conditions inhumane, illegal

By Mike Ward
Austin American-Statesman

GALVESTON — Robert Allen Webb, a 50-year-old developmentally disabled man who suffered from a medical condition that made him susceptible to heatstroke, was supposed to be serving a short sentence in a Texas prison for drunken driving.

But in August 2011, as Texas baked in one of its worst heat waves ever, it became a death sentence inside an East Texas prison.

On Thursday, two wrongful-death lawsuits were filed in a Galveston federal court alleging that Webb and 12 other Texas convicts have died since 2007 — 10 alone in a six-week period of July and August 2011 — in un-air-conditioned prisons because of negligence of Texas prison officials.

In some prisons, lawyers said, indoor summer temperatures routinely reach 110 degrees. In one prison near Dallas, the temperature reportedly topped 149, lawyers in the case said.

Texas operates the nation’s largest prison system, with 111 lockups. But unlike other states that have air-conditioned prisons in recent years to curb health questions and lawsuits, most Texas prisons have air conditioning only in administrative and some treatment areas — not in the cell blocks.

Only about a dozen prisons that house medical, psychiatric and geriatric convicts are air conditioned, officials said Thursday.

Scott Medlock, an attorney for the Austin-based Texas Civil Rights Project that filed the suits with Austin attorney Jeff Edwards, called the two East Texas prisons where most of the deaths occurred — the Gurney unit outside Palestine and Hodge unit in Rusk — “death traps … If (prison) officers locked a dog in a hot car, they would go to prison for animal cruelty. Doing this to human beings, no matter what crime they were convicted of, is unconscionable.”

Added Edwards: “We’re not asking for comfortable prisons. We’re only asking for humane prisons. What is happening now is unforgivable.”

Named as defendants in the cases are top prison officials, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, which provides medical care to about two thirds of Texas’ 150,000 convicts.

John Hurt, a spokesman for the corrections agency, said he could not comment on pending litigation. But generally speaking, he said, a number of precautions are taken during hot summer months to ensure that prisoners and guards are protected from the heat.

“TDCJ takes precautions to help reduce heat-related illnesses such as restricting activity during the hottest parts of the day, providing water and ice in work and housing areas, and training staff to identify and treat those with heat-related illnesses,” he said. “The agency is committed to making sure that all offenders and staff are safe during the extreme heat.”

For Webb, who had been behind bars for about 2 1/2 years at the time of his death, misery had become a baking cell at the Hodge Unit, the lawsuit alleges.

“I remember he told me how Cokes would explode in his cell, it was so hot,” said Webb’s brother, Sidney, the fire chief in the small community of Sheldon, outside Houston. When he visited his younger brother the week before he died, “he said it was so hot he couldn’t breathe.”

A week later, prison officials informed him his brother had died of heat stroke. They had found him about 3:30 a.m. on Aug. 4, 2011, lying in his underwear on the concrete floor of his cell — the spot where prisoners try to cool off.

“My brother laid in that cell and his brain boiled,” Sidney Webb said, choking back tears.

Medlock and Edwards said the dead prisoners all suffered from heat-sensitive medical conditions, ranging from taking psychotropic drugs prescribed for mental illnesses or diuretics for hypertension, or they suffered from diabetes. All were serving time for nonviolent offenses, including Rodney Adams, 45, who died at the Gurney Unit in East Texas, in August 2012 — a year after Webb — from similar heat-related symptoms.

Like Webb, he was also serving time for DWI. “When he was taken to the infirmary, his body temperature was 109.9 degrees,” said his daughter, Ashley Adams. “No one deserves to die so cruelly like this.”

Prison system policies list warnings about increased health risks as temperatures top 100 degrees. Medlock said both prison officials and medical personnel, who were responsible for monitoring the condition of prisoners on heat-sensitive medications, should have known better than to house them in such hot cells.

“They could have fixed this with a pen,” he said. “Bring in fans. Bring in coolers to lower the temperatures by 10-15 degrees. For someone to wait in a hotbox for seven days before they are checked on for heat is unconscionable.”

Because Webb and Adams — like several of the other convicts — were taking psychotropic drugs, they were at risk of dehydration and heat stroke, according to the lawsuit. And unlike most Texans, the prisoners had no way to escape the overheated conditions, Medlock said.

Prison officials said the maximum-security Gurney and Hodge prisons were built during the early 1990s with concrete-box designs that feature air-moving equipment. But the design also uses steel doors on cells that can restrict ventilation; older prisons have bars on the cells. The box designs quickly drew complaints during summer heat waves — from both prisoners and guards.

Previously, state officials had said that adding air conditioners to prisons could cost more than $50 million.

Answering prison officials’ insistence that precautionary heat-related policies are in place and working, Edwards said the deaths show they don’t. “It’s cruel and unusual punishment for everybody,” he said. “Should anyone be living in 105-degree temperatures during the summer in Texas? Absolutely not.”