© 2024 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Inmates are dying in Texas prisons, but the state seldom acknowledges heat as a cause of death

 Mountain View prison in Gatesville on September 19, 2019. Credit: Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune
Marjorie Kamys Cotera
The Texas Tribune
Mountain View prison in Gatesville on September 19, 2019. Credit: Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

Tommy McCullough was exhausted and thirsty, living in a stifling Huntsville prison as the record-breaking and relentless heat wave bore down across Texas this month. But he got up Friday morning and set to work, mowing the sun-scorched fields outside the Goree Unit.

By midday, he’d collapsed, dying of what the prison system says was cardiac arrest. He was 35.

McCullough was one of at least five prisoners since mid-June to die of a reported heart attack or cardiac arrest in uncooled prisons where the regions’ outdoor heat indices were above 100 degrees, according to a Texas Tribune analysis of prison death reports and weather data. Another man who died last week in a separate Huntsville prison was only 34.

At least four other prisoners died in hot prisons this month with undetermined causes of death.

It’s not immediately clear how much of a role, if any, the heat played in the nine deaths. Like all prison deaths, they’re being investigated, said Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesperson Amanda Hernandez.

“Labeling these as heat-related before the investigation is completed would be inaccurate,” she said.

After this story published Wednesday morning, Hernandez said TDCJ officials “now have reason to believe that [McCullough] was on methamphetamines.” An autopsy was not yet complete, but she said interviews and conversations on the unit led to the belief. Staff at the Goree Unit were searching living areas and scaling back on prisoner labor. McCullough was a trustee inmate — a status reserved for prisoners who are most trusted by staff and allowed to do jobs, like mowing outside the fence lines, with limited supervision.

But family members, prison rights advocates and some lawmakers blame the deaths on the brutal heat inside Texas prisons — and the state’s unwillingness to address it.

More than two-thirds of Texas’ 100 prisons don’t have air conditioning in most living areas. Every summer, as temperatures routinely soar well into triple digits, thousands of officers and tens of thousands of prisoners are cramped inside concrete and steel buildings without ventilation, save windows broken out of desperation and fans that blow the hot air. The heat has killed prisoners, likely contributed to severe staff shortages, and cost taxpayers millions of dollars in wrongful death and civil rights lawsuits over the last decade.

This year, state lawmakers chose again not to put any money directly toward installing air conditioning in the dangerously hot prisons, despite a $32.7 billion budget surplus.

In interviews Monday, both of McCullough’s sisters insisted he wasn’t on drugs. His eldest sister, Kristie Williams, said her brother — TJ, as she called him — looked healthy when she visited him for the last time last month. But his friends inside and outside the Goree prison said that indoor temperatures in the last week hit 130 degrees, and men were often sickened from the heat. (As of Monday, TDCJ reported only five heat-related illnesses this year among prisoners.)

Williams said her brother told a friend on the phone the night before he died that officers hadn’t been bringing him water, a common complaint among Texas prisoners and their loved ones in the last several weeks as temperatures rose. When the warden called to say her younger brother, whom the warden called a model inmate, had died, Williams’ heart broke.

She blames his death on the prison’s negligence. The apparent outside temperature in the region that day reached 109 degrees, according to weather data.

“He had so much life ahead of him,” said Williams, 49, choking back tears. “There was so much he wanted to do and he was capable of doing. He just had to get this behind him.”

McCullough was serving a five-year sentence for drug possession out of Collin County, according to prison records, and was set to be released in 2026 at the latest.

State Rep. Terry Canales, an Edinburg Democrat who has tried for years to pass legislation to install air conditioning in Texas prisons, said the recent deaths during the heat wave are not a coincidence.

“There seems to be an increase in heat-related injuries or things that can be attributed to extreme heat in the summer,” he said Tuesday. “Aside from the physical danger, the mental torture … almost makes me emotional to think about.”

The science backs him up. There is an abundance of studies linking an increase in fatal heart failures to extreme heat, and scientists have found that heat is often overlooked as a cause of death. Dr. Salil Bhandari, an emergency medicine physician at UTHealth Houston and Memorial Hermann, said there is always an increase in cardiac arrests during heatwaves. Heat stroke alone can also lead to cardiac arrests, he said.

“Heat stroke essentially means [they are] to the point where they are now having some sort of organ damage,” Bhandari said. “If the heart is not getting enough blood … it can lead to cardiac arrest.”

But it can be hard to identify that a death is caused by the heat, he said, even in autopsies. It’s often impossible to decipher if the heat stopped someone’s heart or if it was spurred by long-term smoking, drugs or a number of other potential causes of heart failure.

“It’s hard to know unless they come into the ER with a very, very high temperature,” he said. “And the story matches it as well, you know, if he was outside mowing.”

Hernandez said Tuesday she did not know whether prison officials or emergency personnel checked the body temperatures of the prisoners who died of cardiac arrest this month.

In recent years, while entrenched in a yearslong civil rights lawsuit over the heat in a geriatric prison, TDCJ began to implement mitigating measures against the heat, like providing prisoners personal fans and access to ice water, cold showers and time in air-conditioned areas. Officials also began moving prisoners deemed medically sensitive, including those on certain medications or with heart problems, into air-conditioned units.

But prisoners and their supporters say such policies often aren’t followed, either due to short-staffing, indifference or both. A study by Texas Prisons Community Advocates and the Texas A&M University Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center surveyed hundreds of prisoners between 2018 and 2020 and found many reported a lack of access to relief required by TDCJ policies.

Hernandez said she was unsure if death investigations during the summer include an examination of how well heat-mitigation policies were being followed when a prisoner died, but she said the agency’s ombudsman is constantly following up on heat complaints and ensuring the agency is following protocols.

Prisoner advocates and TDCJ critics also say the agency has little incentive to report prisoners dying of heat in its care, as such deaths have often landed TDCJ in court, and they accuse the agency of hiding or ignoring heat-related illnesses or deaths inside its facilities. Amite Dominick, president of TPCA, bolstered this argument by noting how the agency has reported more heat-related illnesses among staff this year (nine) than prisoners (five), even though prisoners never get to leave and they outnumber officers more than 7 to 1.

“There is no way on God’s green earth that that’s accurate,” she said. “They’re not logging them somehow.”

The prison system has not officially counted a heat-caused death since 2012, shortly after the blisteringly hot summer of 2011 in which at least 10 Texas prisoners died of heat stroke. In the more than a decade since, the agency has fought a slew of wrongful-death lawsuits, and the civil rights case filed against the Pack Unit forced TDCJ in 2018 to agree to install air conditioning inside that prison.

But there is evidence that deaths since then have been connected to the heat, even if TDCJ does not acknowledge them. For example, a medical examiner ruled Robert Robinson died of environmental hyperthermia, or heat stroke, in 2018 at the Michael Unit near Palestine. The agency has denied the death was heat related, saying the 54-year-old’s cell was air-conditioned and he had other health complications.

The next year, Seth Donnelly died at the Robertson Unit in Abilene. The 29-year-old put on padded suits to train search dogs, though it’s unclear how much of an effect heat had on his death. A medical examiner found he died from methamphetamine toxicity with hyperthermia.

This year, prisoner supporters and family members first started raising the alarm on possible heat-related deaths on June 12, when 50-year-old Luis Sanchez died in the Luther Unit in Navasota — just down the road from the Pack prison. The outside temperature in the region felt like 104 degrees that day, according to historical weather data. The heat index, or apparent temperature, measures both heat and humidity.

TDCJ’s report said Sanchez was found unresponsive after suffering from cardiac arrest. Other Luther prisoners and their loved ones called foul, saying in social media posts and in emails to reporters that the staff had not been passing out water to those begging for it leading up to his death.

About a week later, on June 20, two men died of cardiac arrest in Huntsville and Beaumont, TDCJ reported. Randy Butler, 34, lived on the Byrd Unit and reportedly died of cardiac arrest in the early morning after a day when the area heat index reached 114 degrees. Michael Dixon, 69, was found unresponsive in his Stiles Unit cell as the temperature felt about 108 degrees.

On the same day McCullough died, 73-year-old Jerry Jernigan also died of a heart attack at the Smith Unit in West Texas, the prison reported, where apparent temperatures in the area reached 102 degrees.

The deaths are likely not a final number, as TDCJ has 30 days to report in-prison deaths to the state, and reports often are filed weeks after a death occurs.

Heat anxiety always rises in the summer, Dominick said, but tensions are especially high among prisoners, prison staff and their loved ones this year after the Legislature came as close as it ever had to funding air conditioning in Texas prisons.

The House had agreed to spend $545 million to cover two phases of a four-phase plan to install air conditioning in all Texas prisons by 2031. But the Senate trashed the plans. The final budget, which goes into effect in September, will instead give TDCJ $85.7 million for “additional deferred projects,” which will likely be used to install some air conditioning.

Hernandez said the Luther Unit, where Sanchez died, was already in line to get air conditioning under the agency’s current budget.

For Williams, she has to wait to plan a funeral for her brother until TDCJ releases his body after an autopsy. She hopes the procedure will give her more information about what happened to McCullough. On Monday, she looked back at the last picture she took with him compared with a screenshot from a video visit the week before his death, when the heat wave was firmly in place.

“You can just tell he doesn’t feel good,” she said.

She didn’t excuse her brother’s criminal behavior. Before his current prison sentence, he previously had served eight-month and one-year stints for credit card abuse and theft, respectively, according to court records. But she said this time she could see real change.

“He really had become a different person and even the different officers … really had taken a liking to him because of his big heart,” Williams said. “He has a 7-year-old little girl that now has to grow up without her dad. It’s just heartbreaking.”

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Jolie McCullough | The Texas Tribune