HOUSTON (CN) – A Texas prisoner died from heat stroke due to the prison system’s former policy of not immediately calling 911 for emergencies, a federal judge ruled, refusing to dismiss deliberate indifference claims against prison officials.
Larry Gene McCollom arrived at the Hutchins State Jail in suburban Dallas on July 15, 2011 to serve a 12-month forgery sentence amid a record-breaking Texas heat wave.
With outside temperatures topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit, prison staff put him in a dorm with 57 other men, whose body heat increased the humidity in the room with sealed windows and no air-conditioning.
The only airflow came from two industrial fans mounted on the walls and one in the floor, and air handlers that circulated hot outside air into the room, according to the case record.
The events leading to McCollom’s death are detailed in U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison’s Feb. 3 ruling that was unsealed Monday.
“The Texas Department of Criminal Justice operates 109 prisons in Texas, housing approximately 150,000 incarcerated men and women. The majority of these prisons do not have air-conditioning in the inmate housing areas, but all of the prisons have some areas that are air-conditioned,” the ruling states. (Citations to documents omitted.)
Wardens’ offices and guard stations are air-conditioned.
A TDCJ spokesman told the Houston Chronicle on Tuesday that 29 of its prisons have air-conditioning in housing areas.
McCollom was the second of 10 Texas prisoners to die from hyperthermia or heat-related illnesses in the summer of 2011. From 1998 through 2011, 20 Texas prisoners died of heat, according to the ruling.
During an initial medical screening, the 5-foot-10-inch 310-pound McCollom told a prison medical aide he had a history of diabetes, depression, high blood pressure and mental illness.
Later that day, a physician assistant switched the high blood pressure drug McCollom was prescribed in a county jail before he was transferred to Hutchins to hydrochlorothiazide, a diuretic that decreases blood pressure, but dehydrates the user and disrupts one’s ability to cool down, raising the risk of heat stroke.
McCollom needed to drink lots of water to counteract the medication — prison staff put 10-gallon water jugs in the dorm each day and the prison system advised inmates to drink two gallons on hot days — but under the prison’s policy he was not given a cup and was not allowed to go to the commissary to buy one for 30 to 45 days after his arrival.
McCollom was initially assigned a lower bunk, but guards switched him to a top bunk three days later and he struggled to get in and out of bed, eventually no longer getting up to eat. Becoming desperate, he asked his fellow inmate Santos Rodriguez to bring him water in the cereal bowl Rodriguez used for a cup, Rodriguez stated in a declaration.
Around 2 a.m. on July 22, 2011, seven days after McCollom’s arrival, a prisoner told Officer Richard C. Clark that McCollom was shaking.
The day before McCollom fell ill, the heat index, a combination of heat and humidity, reached 150 degrees Fahrenheit outside the prison, according to a temperature log kept by prison staff and cited in the ruling.