As summer temperatures begin to soar, the Texas Civil Rights Project and Austin lawyer Jeff Edwards filed wrongful death lawsuits Thursday against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the University of Texas Medical Branch, alleging that they failed to protect four prisoners who died from heat stroke.
Inmates Douglas Hudson, Kenneth Wayne James and Rodney Adams were housed at the Gurney facility near Tennessee Colony, and Robert Allen Webb was at the Hodge facility near Rusk when they died. The lawsuits allege that all four men — serving time for nonviolent crimes — suffered from medical conditions that made them more susceptible to heat. Prison officials wouldn’t comment on the litigation but said they work to ensure the safety of prisoners during the hottest months of the year.
“TDCJ knew putting men with these medical conditions in temperatures this high could kill them, but they did it anyway,” Edwards said in a news release.
Webb and Adams, according to the lawsuit, were prescribed psychotropic drugs that made dehydration a greater threat.
The Gurney and Hodge facilities are “death traps,” Scott Medlock, director of the TCRP’s prisoners’ rights program, said in the release. “If TDCJ 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.”
TDCJ officials do not comment on pending litigation, but spokesman Jason Clark said in an email that the agency is “committed to making sure that all offenders and staff are safe during the extreme heat.” Many TDCJ facilities were built before air conditioning installation became common, and more recently built prisons omitted air conditioning systems because of added building costs, he said.
Clark added that prison guards and staff work under the same conditions as the prisoners endure.
The prison was “extremely hot” and difficult to live in for Webb, said his brother Sidney Webb Jr.
Sidney Webb visited his brother in prison the week before he died.
“He said he wasn’t feeling well,” he said. “He couldn’t breathe.”
A week later, Sidney Webb was informed of his brother’s death.
“It was not uncommon for prisoners to strip down to their underwear and lie on the concrete floor to keep cool,” he said prison officials told him. “That’s where they found my brother.”
Edwards and Medlock said the four prisoners listed in the complaint had been jailed for nonviolent offenses. “These are people who made mistakes” and were only to be incarcerated for a short time, Edwards said.
“Prisons don’t need to be comfortable, but these high temperatures mean these men were sentenced to death,” Medlock said in the release.
The lawsuit is one of several recent lawsuits against the TDCJ alleging heat-related deaths, including that of Hutchins inmate Larry McCollum last year. That lawsuit is pending. And the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled last year that extreme heat can violate prisoner rights.
The TDCJ has previously said it does not believe taxpayers would fund air-conditioning for inmates.
“Although a detailed cost analysis has not been done, retrofitting facilities with air conditioning would be extremely expensive,” Clark wrote. Medical, psychiatric and geriatric units are air conditioned, he added.
But Edwards said with the impending threat of extreme summer heat, more waiting could be deadly.
“We’re about to get into the hottest months,” Edwards said. “It’s too big a problem for talk and delay.”