The public controversy about heat in Texas prisons - for many it's much more personal
Text and multimedia by: Lauren Schneider
odney Adams was supposed to spend four years in prison. He lasted one day in the sweltering heat.
He had just barely finished his first meal. Back in his cell, Adams felt hot and dizzy. Soon his organs began shutting down. His own body that was furiously fighting to save his life, was also killing him.
Fellow inmates helped to hold him down during his convulsions while they screamed for help.
By the time he reached the prison infirmary, his body temperature had reached 109.9 degrees.
Within hours he was dead.
He never met his grandson, born thirteen days later.
Adams is one of at least 14 inmates since 2007 whose deaths have been linked to extreme temperatures in Texas prisons that critics describe as inhumane.
Inmates aren’t the only ones who are suffering. Correctional officers work in the same buildings without air-conditioning.
And that has created unlikely allies.
Family members of the deceased inmates and the correctional officers union have even joined together in a series of lawsuits to fight for cooler conditions.
How in the heck do you have tin buildings - in Texas - and house a bunch of people in them? That's the dumbest thing I've ever seen.
Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) facilities are not air-conditioned except for the infirmaries and units for psychiatric inmates. Warden offices and the prison armories are also climate controlled, according to depositions by TDCJ.
Texas county jails are required by law to regulate temperature conditions between 65 and 85 degrees year-round. TDCJ facilities do not fall under the Texas Commission on Jail Standards’ jurisdiction and have opted out of following a similar protocol.
And it’s hot in Texas.
“How in the heck do you have tin buildings – in Texas – and house a bunch of people in them?” asked Grover Goodwell, a retired former Assistant Warden at the Holliday Unit just outside Huntsville. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.”
But the numbers on the temperature gauge don’t tell the whole story.
High humidity can make a 90-degree day feel much hotter than it actually is. That’s measured by something known as the heat index. Basically, it’s how hot it feels to the body rather than just the
And heat index readings in Texas prisons frequently cross into a
life-threatening danger zone on the National Weather Service’s heat
index chart. A 90-degree day with only 36 percent humidity, for example,
crosses the threshold where heat exhaustion is possible.
In Texas prisons, temperatures consistently exceed 90 degrees during
summer months, and sometimes even last well into the night.
The average humidity levels across Texas range from 72 – 80 percent
A routine temperature log reading at the Hutchins State Jail in July 2011, for
example, showed a 149-degree heat index.
That number is so high it doesn’t even appear on the weather service’s heat
index chart. And it was only 10:30am.
Many of the prison units built in the last 30 years are made with metal walls
and metal roofing.
“It’s concrete and steel,” said former correctional officer Ed Hulon. “That’s
what Domino’s uses to bake their pizza’s in.”
The heat is so extreme inside these prisons that it's painful for inmates to
rest their arms on the steel tables because they are so hot. They place wet
towels on top just to make it bearable to touch.
It’s also not uncommon to find inmates stripped down to their underwear and lying on the floor of their cells in order to keep cool.
Allen Webb was found on his cell floor, naked, in an attempt to cool his body when the heat index had reached 137 degrees that day.
“When the autopsy report came in...it was heat-related – his brain boiled – he actually, brain boiled,” said Sidney Webb of his late brother, Allen Webb, who died in the Jerry H. Hodge Unit, in the summer of 2011.
In December 2013, a federal judge in Louisiana ruled that the heat reached in the death row tiers at Angola, Louisiana’s only maximum-security prison, near Baton Rouge, constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The judge ruled that the prison needs to maintain its temperatures at 88 degrees or below. That ruling is under appeal. The majority of the prisons, where the inmates have died since 2007 from the heat, are all located either in or near Huntsville, Texas. The charts below compare the temperatures experienced in Baton Rouge, the closest city to the Angola prison, where the federal judge ruled the heat was excessive, with Huntsville, which serves as a hub for prisons in Texas.
- Grover Goodwell, Retired former TDCJ Asst. Warden
Source: Weather Underground
It was fuel to the fire.
The University of Texas Human Rights Clinic published its “Deadly Heat in Texas Prisons” report last April after lawsuits had already been brought against TDCJ and Brad Livingston, the serving executive director.
The Clinic published a follow-up report in March. Both reports conclude that high temperatures in TDCJ facilties directly violate the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In all, almost 100 pages are devoted to documenting the issue.
The 8th Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. And the 8th Amendment applies to everyone, says the reports, inmate or not.
What the Clinic sees as cruel and unusual punishment, however, is perceived quite differently by those opposed to air-conditioning the prisons. Maintaining “comfort levels” for inmates does not rank high on their list of priorities.
But for the 150,784 incarcerated people who live through these astronomical heat indexes day in and day out every summer, it's not about comfort. And for the more than 25,000 correctional officers suffering alongside, it's a high priority for them.
It’s about people, like Ashley Adams, and the life events for a grandson that Rodney Adams will never witness.
Rodney Gerald Adams died in his cell from a heat stroke. His body temperature was 109.9 degrees. It was one day since his arrival at the Joe F. Gurney transfer facility from the air-conditioned Wise County Jail.
Adams began serving four years in prison after his third conviction for DWI in 2012.
Ashley Adams, Adams’ daughter said her father turned to alcohol to ease the chronic
pain he received from injuries over the years. He had a series of hip replacement
surgeries when he was young, suffered a car wreck, and strained his body tossing
baggage for American Airlines, said Ashley.
Ashley’s mother left when she was young. Her father stayed to raise her. They
enjoyed long drives to nowhere and, even more, watching the horses at the racetrack.
“All my friends loved him, [they] thought he was so funny,” said Ashley.
One day into his sentence, Ashley received a phone call from the prison chaplain.
Your father is “still alive, you would consider that, but he’s on life support,” said the
chaplain. She should come quickly.
Ankles swollen, as she was 13 days shy of having her first child, Ashley arrived at
the hospital. She stood in the doorway, next to the correctional officer standing guard.
Her father was in a coma and on life support.
She couldn’t bring herself to enter the room.
He died that night.
This is “a very unfortunate situation of a 45-year-old inmate who was apparently perfectly well,” until he was exposed to “the extremely hot conditions within the holding tank” at the prison, said a doctor who evaluated Adams, as cited in the civil lawsuit filed against TDCJ.
“When I had my son, on the 16th of August that year, it hurt me after I had him,” Ashley said. “I was like, ‘Dad should be here, seeing him,’ but he wasn’t.”
SPEAKER: Ashley Adams, Daughter of Rodney Adams
When I had my son on the 16th of August that year, it hurt me after I had him. I was like, 'Dad should be here, seeing him,' but he wasn't.
All 14 inmates who died since 2007 had preexisting conditions that made them more vulnerable to the heat, and TDCJ knew that, lawyers for the families alleged in court documents.
All but one of them were on prescribed medicine that could cause adverse reactions to heat, such as reducing one’s ability to perspire and cool off.
When the body temperature rises above 104 degrees, paired with a high heat index, the risk of a heat stroke or other injury, such as cardiac arrest brought on by the heat, is dangerously high.
Warm blood is pumped away from organs and out to the skin to cool itself. This is to force quicker perspiration.
But with high temperatures and particularly high humidity levels, the sweat cannot evaporate quick enough to actually cool the body. Meanwhile vital organs suffer from the loss of the necessary inflow of blood.
“Unlike most medical problems in prison that are difficult to manage, this is a completely preventable problem,” said Jeff Edwards, a lawyer representing some of the families of the deceased inmates.
For many years, being tough on crime meant mass incarceration. The number of prisons in Texas swelled from 18 in 1978 to 109 prisons today.
Since then, the prison reform sentiment has been slowly creeping in, and the building binge is a thing of the past.
But legislators aren’t necessarily jumping out of their seats to make conditions in prison less severe
“Texans are not motivated to air-condition inmates,” said State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, according to a New York Times article in 2012. “These people are sex offenders, rapists, murderers.”
Former State Rep. Jerry Madden (R-Plano) who once served
as the chairman of the House Corrections Committee said,
“Texas has a well-deserved reputation of being tough on
More than half of the inmates are violent offenders – 56% –
according to the TDCJ Statistical Report for fiscal year 2013.
That’s “less scary than most people think,” Robert Perkinson
wrote in Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire.
“This is partly because a wide variety of crimes qualify as
violent. The classification included homicide and pedophilia,
to be sure, but also fighting, resisting arrest, or even illegal
possession of pepper spray.”
The prisons are also home to many non-violent offenders. For the same fiscal year 2013, almost eight out of every ten inmates being brought into prison had committed a non-violent crime.
Before Freddie Fountain found himself in prison, he had a very different view on inmates.
"Out of my ignorance I had a natural bias for prisoners…they’re murderers, they’re rapists…they don’t deserve air conditioning."
That was before he was convicted of a DWI and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
“It’s a different story when you’re living back here,” he said. “All that changes out of experience…your mind and heart become humble where it wasn’t before.”
Fountain now spends 18 plus hours every day in the law library at Coffield. He’s preparing a lawsuit he wants to file against TDCJ.
And it’s not just him. He’s bringing in as many fellow inmates who are also willing to testify.
Fountain’s aiming for a class-action lawsuit.
“Four hundred guys is all I’ve been able to have access to,” Fountain said. “Out of the 400, I’ve come up with 87 guys so far that are willing to take that stand…Ballpark figure, I’m guessing we’ll be able to testify to 30 – 40 – 50 units, at least.”
Fountain’s optimistic that he will get air-conditioning.
“These issues have to be brought out, and our case is the one to do it.”
SPEAKERS: Stephanie Kingrey, Daughter of Larry McCollum & Sandy McCollum, McCollum's second wife
SPEAKER: Sandy McCollum, Second wife of Larry McCollum
TDCJ officials declined to be interviewed, but they did provide a statement by email.
“As we do every summer, the agency looks for ways to help mitigate temperature extremes…TDCJ will continue to examine ways to lower temperatures where it's possible and we remain committed to making sure that staff and offenders are safe during the hot summer months.”
TDCJ officials also wrote that they recently purchased 28 "Cool Space" fans and have implemented them in dormitory day rooms at seven facilities across the state, namely: Holliday Transfer Facility in Huntsville, Dominguez State Jail in San Antonio, Gist State Jail in Beaumont, Middleton Transfer Facility in Abilene, Gurney State Jail in Palestine, Hutchins State Jail in Dallas and Garza West Transfer Facility in Beeville according to a 2014 Houston Chronicle article.
The evaporative coolers were installed as part of a test rather than widespread policy change. And the implementation was targeted at facilities that frequently house newly admitted inmates who are less accustomed to the oppressive Texas heat.
“This is nowhere near air-conditioning in prisons, which I don’t think Texans support,” said Whitmire in the Houston Chronicle article. But, “We do need to try to help inmates and staff tolerate the extreme summer heat.”
Some critics of TDCJ saw this as a step in the right direction.
But others saw a problem with the limited rollout phase coupled with the fact that evaporative coolers are not designed to work in humid climates.
And still others saw this as proof that TDCJ needed to do more about the heat issue.
TDCJ continues to reiterate that the current measures to reduce the heat, such as access to additional showers, furnishing ice water, and personal 9” fans for sale in the commissary, the mini-mart of prisons, are enough.
There are many contentions around these measures.
“I don’t know when in the heck they would have extra showers,” said Goodwell. “You’re talking about a screwed up mess. Number one, extra showers are not in the building schedule.”
In some prisons, such as Estelle and Coffield, there are times when inmates said they were only allowed a shower three times a week.
When the levels rise above 90 degrees and the humidity is at least 36 percent, fans do little to prevent a heatstroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. At those indices, fans can have the opposite effect. Fans may even hurt by helping to increase the body’s temperature faster.
As many as 75 inmates, and even the correctional officers, would have to share one igloo cooler of ice water, according to Samuel "Ed" Hulon, a former correctional officer. They were only refilled usually twice a day during the sweltering summer heat.
William Nichols stands in front of Huntsville Unit, also known as the Walls unit, on his release day. He his holding his personal items, including a fan he purchased from TDCJ
SPEAKER: Freddie Fountain, Inmate at Coffield Unit, Tennessee Colony
"Out of my ignorance I had a natural bias for prisoners... they're murderers, they're rapists...they don't deserve air conditioning. [...] It's a different story when you're living back here." -Freddie Fountain
- Ashley Adams, daughter of Rodney Adams, who died from the heat
Timeline: Since 2007, a total of 14 inmates have died in TDCJ facilites due to heat related causes. All had preexisting conditions that would make them more vulnerable to the heat.
(Hover over the names for more information)
Larry Gene McCollum wrote a hot check. It would be a stretch to call him a hardened criminal.
McCollum was perhaps better known as ‘paw paw Larry’ by his second wife’s kids. Or even “Santa Claus” by his own grandchildren because of his full white beard and hair as well as his ‘jolly’ figure.
McCollum lasted one week at the Hutchins State Jail.
McCollum was found unresponsive in his cell. He had a 109.4-degree body temperature.
Inmates screamed for 45-minutes for help for her husband before anyone came, said Sandy
McCollum, McCollum’s second wife.
He was no small man. McCollum weighed 345 lbs. He was a diabetic. In the week he spent
at Hutchins, he never received his intake exam.
This meant he did not have a cup for getting water. He hadn’t received commissary privileges
to purchase a fan or shorts, like other inmates who were also fighting the heat could.
Prior to his incarceration, McCollum began to make big changes in his life. Mending
relationships with his kids, holding a steady job, and getting off the streets and into an
“I woke up and realized that my family means more to me than anything,” McCollum once
And he never missed a birthday, said McCollum's daughter, Stephanie Kingrey. Never.
To help a friend out, McCollum fell into an old pattern writing hot checks said Kingrey. That landed him in prison for his final eleven-month stint in the Texas prison system.
“He had a hard life,” said Kingrey. “But, he was… making it right. He was just a sweet, loving, kind person.”
It’s been almost three years since they filed the lawsuit against TDCJ, and it’s still pending.
All they want is closure.
When it’s all over, they plan to take McCollum’s ashes to Oklahoma to spread them over his parents’ gravesite, as well as a family-favorite location that he loved so much, the WinStar Casino.
"No matter what they've done, that's someone's dad....that's someone's child. And, yes they might have [done] the crime, but let's - let's not be inhumane."
Heat exhaustion was nothing new to Webb. Dizziness, muscle cramps, blurred vision and nausea. He knew them all. Like clockwork, when summer rolled around, so did the symptoms.
In the summer of 2009, Robert Allen Webb wrote a complaint to the prison infirmary saying, I’m “drinking a lot of water and I’m still dizzy, dehydrated, cramps and muscle spasms. I’m having these symptoms all day, and all night. Please can you help me?”
He made it through that year.
But 2011 proved to be too much. He never made it through that
record high-heat summer.
Webb was convicted of a non-aggravated robbery and sentenced
to prison in 2009, for the second time.
He was found at 3am on August 4, 2011, lying naked on the
cement floor of his cell. He had allegedly been attempting to
cool off his body.
For 18 days in a row, the temperatures seared above 100 degrees near the Hodge Unit, where he was serving his time, in the month leading up to Webb’s death.
The heat index the day he died reached 137 degrees.
He was known as Allen to friends and family. He loved being outdoors. He never held a long-term job, but he did many things. He drove a truck, just as his dad had done. He could fix almost anything from fan belts to broken prison tractors. He even dabbled in landscaping.
Allen was bi-polar. Diagnosed since high school and a leading factor in why he never made it past the 9th grade.
On the day Allen died, It was so hot that he had even visited the prison infirmary, as he had done so many times in the past, to complain about the heat. This was his last visit.
“No matter what they’ve done, that’s someone’s dad – that’s someone’s mother – that’s someone’s uncle – that’s someone’s child,” said Sidney Webb, Allen’s brother. “And, yes they might have [done] the crime, but let’s – let’s not be inhumane.”
I'm having these symptoms all day, and all night. Please can you help me?
SPEAKERS: Sidney Webb, brother of Allen Webb; Edna Webb, mother of Allen Webb; Casey Akins, daughter of Allen Webb
- Robert Allen Webb, inmate who died from heat
The first line of defense for those who don't want to air-condition the prisons, is cost.
“I can tell you, the people of Texas don’t want air-conditioned prisons,’ said Whitmire. “…We’re going to pay for their air-conditioning when I can’t go down the street and provide air conditioning to hard-working, taxpaying citizens?”
TDCJ has a $3 billion annual operating budget. And the cost to install air conditioning throughout the prisons just doesn’t fit within that, said Jason Clark, a spokesman for TDCJ.
But what that cost is exactly, nobody knows. No official cost analysis has been performed, said Clark.
But family members who lost a loved one to the heat are upset that TDCJ could find $750,000 in the budget to spend on installing six “climate controlled” buildings to keep the pigs cool. Raising pigs is part of the TDCJ agriculture program, utilizing prison workers, to provide food for the inmates across the state.
“Pigs can’t sweat,” said Bryan Collier a spokesman for TDCJ. Climate control is critical to keep young pigs alive.
To Goodwell, it's a slap in the face for correctional officers.
“We have been screamin’ and hollerin’ at TDC for as long as I’ve been there,” said
Goodwell. “Those are inhuman conditions they’re working in. …When they can
spend $750,000 to keep the pigs cool, and not the officers – now, come on – what
would you think about how they felt about you? They’re gonna’ pay for the pigs to
keep them cool, but you got people falling out?”
The pigs sealed the deal.
An organization that represents Texas' correctional officers announced in August 2013 that they would lend their support in the litigation against the state over the 14 heat-related deaths of inmates.
TDCJ employees reported 172 heat-related workers’ compensation claims,
between 2011 and 2013.
SPEAKER: Grover Goodwell, Retired Asst. Warden with TDCJ
For Samuel "Ed" Hulon, a newly hired TDCJ correctional officer at the Stiles maximum-security unit just outside of Beaumont, suffering heat exhaustions three times in one summer was too much to take. He started working for TDCJ summer 2014. September 17 was his last day.
“I did everything that I was supposed to do,” Hulon said. “And I went back three times…the heat index was out the roof, and I’m dripping – I’m absolutely drenched in water.”
The first time Hulon heard the heat index was 118 degrees. He couldn’t believe it.
“I would be there less than an hour and it would look like someone had taken a hose [to me]” said
His uniform from the previous day would still be wet with sweat the next morning when he would
bring it in for laundry at the prison. Even after the clothes had sat in an air-conditioned apartment
Hulon is a diabetic. He has high blood pressure and takes psychotropic medicines.
He never knew his medicine could affect how his body reacts to heat.
‘I’m gonna’ pass out, and I’m a diabetic – something’s wrong – I’m gonna’ pass out,” Hulon recalled telling the person at the main desk during his first heat exhaustion.
His blood sugar was 489 mg/dL.
Normal is 100/mg/dL. He was put on insulin for the first time. He now takes insulin five times a day.
Wearing Kevlar stab vests made the heat even more unbearable.
Correctional officers are required to wear these after a riot or when working in Administrative Segregation, otherwise known as solitary confinement.
“I’d rather be stabbed,” Hulon recalled saying. “I’d rather take my chances with being stabbed than wear a stab vest, because if I put the stab vest on, I’m gonna’ pass out in two hours.”
He had called it.
An inmate saw Hulon slumping over the railing, several hours into his shift after putting
on the vest. The inmate tried to help.
“Don’t touch me,” Hulon recalled telling him. “We’re on camera. You can’t touch me.”
Hulon sent the inmate to call for help. This was the last day he worked for TDCJ.
“I’m gonna’ die, I’m going to die,” Hulon recalled thinking that day. “If my blood sugar
goes to 600, I’m going to stroke and I’m going to die.”
Two weeks shy of Christmas, Hulon was being evicted from his apartment because he
could not pay rent.
Hulon does not have insurance. He could not afford his own. The medical bills he had to
pay drained his savings. He was left with $300 in his bank account by December.
Ironically, the exact reason that motivated Hulon to move back to Texas and start working
for TDCJ, is the same reason that forced him to leave.
“I’ll go to work for the state – great benefits, great insurance, great medical,” said Hulon
of his reason to move back to Texas. “I can work in a prison.”
But the state’s benefits kick in 90 days after starting work. He was just shy of his 90-day
period before he fell out for the last time.
“When I moved here, I thought this was it,” said Hulon, “I thought I was going to stay for four or five years, work at Stiles – I just turned 60 in July…I’m not moving again.”
But this was move number 34.
Hulon’s work resume is as varied as his list of home addresses over the years. Besides working in prisons before, he worked for Eastern Airlines as a customs rep before its liquidation in the early 90s.
His apartment hallway was lined with autographed photographs of celebrities he met during his time
with the airlines. There is also a movie poster and newspaper clippings from his time working with
Jim Carrey and Ian McNeice on Ace Ventura 2.
But in all of his jobs, nothing had prepared him for the hot conditions that he faced in the Stiles unit.
"I'd rather be stabbed. I'd rather take my chances with being stabbed than wear a stab vest, because if I put the stab vest on, I'm gonna' pass out in two hours."
- Ed Hulon
TDCJ is facing a shortage of correctional officers. And that has led to shortcuts in the hiring process say some critics.
Candidates are offered the job over the phone, said Lance Lowry, a correctional officer at the Huntsville unit and also President of the Huntsville chapter of The American Federation of State County Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union that represents Texas' correctional officers. Then “TDC reads questions to you…‘can you work in hot conditions?’"
For someone naïve to the extreme heat conditions within the prisons, many people will offhandedly respond yes, he said. The person on the other end of the phone is not a physician.
Hulon said he never knew what he was getting himself into.
Nobody ever questioned his medical history during the hiring process with TDCJ. There was no required physical exam to determine if he would be a good fit for the work environment he was about to enter.
A physical exam is not part of the standard procedure in the hiring process according to Lowry.
And Hulon should never have been hired to work in the prisons, given his medical history said Lowry.
In hindsight, Hulon agreed.
“TDC is cutting corners, cutting costs, hiring people that should not have been hired," said Lowry.
Texas is not the only state to be fighting over the heat issue in court.
A federal judge in Louisiana ruled that the heat reached in the death
row tiers at Angola, Louisiana’s only maximum-security prison,
constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
The judge ordered that the heat index is not to exceed 88 degrees.
The case is pending before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Other states, like Arkansas and Arizona, have resolved this issue.
Arkansas, for example, is required to maintain a maximum temperature
of 78 degrees.
Hulon believes it's time for Texas to step up.
“It’s unbelievable how [the inmates] are treated, and I know they’re the scourge of society, but the average person has no clue whatsoever what goes on out there, how they’re treated, and it’s just… I couldn’t believe it,” said Hulon. “It was the most inhumane place I have ever worked in my life.”
Prisons and jails don’t always breed a lot of compassion for people, said Lowry. And that bothers him.
“I’ve always said from the beginning, heat cases are not about heat – it’s about how we treat people,” he said.