State must stand trial over local inmate's heat-related death

Published: Feb. 16, 2017 at 8:52 AM CST
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The family of a Waco man who died of heat stroke while in state prison custody has filed a federal lawsuit alleging unfair treatment of state inmates because prisons are not air conditioned.

Larry McCollum, 58, died during the summer months of 2011 while in custody at the Hutchins State Jail, near Dallas, and his family says his death was a direct result of unlivable conditions inside an un-air conditioned prison unit.

The judge in the case, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison, has issued an order that requires the State of Texas to stand trial in the lawsuit.

Ellison issued a sharp rebuke, noting more than 20 recent deaths in the state prison system at units where there is no air conditioning.

Ten of those inmates died during the 2011 heat wave alone.

McCollum was serving a one-year sentence for writing hot checks.

Ellison, in his 83-page order moving the case to trial, wrote: “[It] was not simply bad luck but an entirely preventable consequence of inadequate policies.”

Ellison noted he had personally visited a state lock-up during the peak heat season said the state has documented a temperature of 150 degrees inside the Hutchins Unit.

McCollum, a Bellmead cab driver, died in a facility that sealed windows, had only few fans, had an insufficient supply of water and provided inadequate medical care.

The judge denied the state’s motion to dismiss the case and said the policies in place within the Texas prison system “contributed to the deaths of 11 men before McCollum and 10 men after him."

State officials, after Ellison’s Ruling, announced they would appeal the order to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court, in New Orleans.

“The safety, security, health and overall well-being of offenders is of paramount importance to the TDCJ,” prison spokesman Jason Clark said Thursday.

“We disagree with the district court's decision and will be appealing the ruling to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.”

The lawsuit, filed by McCollum’s widow and two children, is but the latest in a series of lawsuit filed against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice over conditions inside state prisons.

Notably most of the cases involve disabled or elderly inmates who are particularly susceptible to illness brought on by excessive heat.

McCollum was found unresponsive on July 28, 2011, lying on top of his upper bunk.

He was taken to Parkland Hospital, in Dallas, where his body temperature was recorded at more than 109 degrees.

He later died there.

GATESVILLE, Texas (KWTX)—A local corrections union representative says prisons without air conditioning subject correctional officers such harsh conditions.

“The first year our officers that come in we have over 60 per cent turnover rate one of the main reasons for the turnover rate is the lack of air conditioning,” Thomas Jones said.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union represents more than 600 employees in the two Marlin prisons and six Gatesville prisons.

Retired corrections officer Edwin Rodriguez, who worked in one of the Gatesville units for 21 years, says he almost passed out one day, but was quickly put back on the job.

"And they took me to the infirmary and they gave me something to drink I believe they gave me an IV then I went back to work."

"I think the state should air condition the prisons, it would help the morale of the correctional officers and help keep many of them on the job,” he said.

The officers aren’t allowed to drink from the same coolers prisoners are in the pods so they have to sneak out to get some.

“We had access to water but it was outside of the pod so we had to break policy to actually get to the water,” Jones said. (John Carroll)