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Texas Prisoner’s Excessive Heat Death Reveals Continuing Danger

by Matt Clarke

After the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) settled a lawsuit over excessive heat filed by prisoners at the Wallace Pack Unit, by agreeing to air condition the facility and move heat-sensitive prisoners to cooler cells, many thought the issue of heat-related deaths in Texas prisons had been resolved. [See: PLN, July 2018, p.1]. However, the recent death of a 29-year-old state prisoner, caused by hyperthermia, revealed that excessive heat remains a concern.

Seth Donnelly was seven years into a 12-year sentence for intoxication manslaughter. He was a trusty assigned to the Robertson Unit, whose job as a “runner” was to lay scent trails for the prison’s bloodhounds and fight them if they caught him. To protect himself from the dogs, he wore a 75-pound anti-bite suit. The suit’s padding acted like insulation.

Four days prior to his June 23, 2019 death, Donnelly wrote to a friend complaining about the heat. “Very hot day and tomorrow is supposed to be 102,” he said. “There that Texas heat is. I’m exhausted and I may have gotten a little too much sun as I’m a little red.” Donnelly had previously told his mother, Deborah, that the guards didn’t always provide enough water when he was working.

“He said the guards were very cruel at times, that they wouldn’t always give the guys breaks or allow them to cool down in the air conditioning,” she said. “I got real worried when I started to hear that, knowing how hot it can get in those big suits.”

Runners are required to literally run across fields, traverse ditches, lay improvised traps and climb trees in an attempt to mislead and elude the tracking dogs. On Donnelly’s last day on the job, he and his crew of dog-training prisoners did a run. Afterward he felt ill, so the guards let him stay in a cooled trailer while the rest of the crew conducted a second run. When they returned at around 4 a.m., they discovered Donnelly “in distress.”

He arrived at the Hendrick Medical Center’s emergency room at 5:45 a.m., which led to questions about the delay in transporting him.

“If this young man was suffering symptoms of heat exhaustion, it could easily progress to heat stroke,” noted Austin attorney Scott Medlock, who represented the Wallace Pack Unit prisoners in their excessive heat lawsuit. “When you’ve got heat exhaustion you need to be immediately seen by medical staff and not returned to a hot environment.”

Donnelly had no brain activity when he arrived at the hospital; he was taken off life support and died two days later. The cause of death listed in a preliminary autopsy was “multiorgan failure following severe hyperthermia.”

Another Texas prisoner died due to “environmental hyperthermia,” or heat stroke, on July 19, 2018 at the Michael Unit, according to an in-custody death report sent to the Texas Attorney General’s office. Robert Earl Robinson, 54, was found unresponsive by prison staff and taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.

He had served 30 years of a 45-year sentence for burglary of a habitation.

Disputing the medical examiner’s preliminary report listing the cause of death as hyperthermia, TDCJ officials claimed Robinson had been housed in an air conditioned cell. While segregation cells at the Michael Unit are air conditioned, the temperatures are often set to the mid-to-high 80s and the system is failure-prone, leaving prisoners in hot cells without fans or windows that open. Of the state’s 104 prisons and state jails, 75 lack air conditioning.

The day after Robinson’s death, prison officials initiated a new incident command system to minimize outside work, serve cooler meals, and provide cool showers and water when outdoor temperatures exceed 100 degrees. Between January and October 2018, 79 prisoners and staff members reportedly suffered heat-related illnesses.

According to an April 2019 news report, a bill introduced in the state legislature, which “would have tackled high temperatures at state jails and prisons has been gutted and replaced with a cost study, a move inmate advocates called ‘a cop-out.’”

The bill, HB 936, was referred to a committee at the time the legislative session ended. The TDCJ claimed it would cost $1.2 billion to air condition all state prisons – an amount that the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Terry Canales, called “grossly inflated” and “disingenuous.” During the Wallace Pack litigation, prison officials had estimated the cost to air condition just that facility at $20 million – a figure that was later reduced to $4 million. 

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Sources: texasobserver.org, texastribune.org, dallasnews.com, chronicle.com