“Frozen in Solitude’’: Heat-Sensitive Texas Prisoners Get More Than Air Conditioning Locked Inside Former Segregation Cells
by Matt Clarke
After the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) settled a lawsuit over life-threatening excessive heat at the Wallace Pack Unit in 2018, it realized it needed to apply the suit’s heat-sensitivity criteria systemwide – and found a quick solution.
For years, officials had been moving prisoners out of administrative segregation (ad seg) and super segregation (super seg) cells, slowly freeing thousands of beds in some of the prison system’s only air-conditioned cells. So TDCJ decided to begin moving all its heat sensitive prisoners – most of whom are elderly, infirm or taking psychotropic medications – into the former isolation cells.
But there is a cruelty baked into the architecture of ad seg and super seg, not to mention the attitudes of guards who work there. Those spaces were designed to hold very dangerous prisoners in extreme isolation; simply changing occupants does not change the fact that the isolation is much greater than it is for prisoners in general population, while also denying access to programs and activities such as education, library, recreation, law library and chapel services.
Simultaneously, housing elderly and infirm prisoners alongside young prisoners with mental illness – often in the same cells – is a recipe for violence, one that TDCJ apparently attempts to sweeten by keeping the temperatures in many of the cell blocks extremely low, below 60° F. Thus even the minimum-custody prisoners TDCJ deems “heat sensitive” become frozen in isolation while being exposed to a litany of dangers.
The Driving Problem is Potentially Deadly Heat
For decades, prisoners in southern states who challenged summer heat in their un-air-conditioned cells were told by judges that prisons would get air conditioning after the most poverty-stricken person outside of the prisons was provided air conditioning at government expense. In other words, air conditioning was seen as a luxury, not the solution to a deadly danger. But as unprecedented heat waves caused record numbers of deaths outside of prisons, attitudes about the dangers of excessive heat began to change.
The tidal shift in the federal courts’ attitudes about the dangers excessive heat poses for prisoners came about after a suit filed by attorneys from the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Edwards Group in Austin on behalf of prisoners held at TDCJ’s Pack Unit, who were facing both contaminated water and scorching summer temperatures. Having trained lawyers who hired expert witnesses to testify about the danger and deaths caused by excessive heat made a huge difference. Likewise, a 2014 report from the University of Texas School of Law’s Human Rights Clinic that documented at least 14 heat-related TDCJ prisoner deaths between 2007 and 2013 helped drive home the seriousness of the problem.
This new evidence of the deadly danger of heat in Texas prisons led the federal court for the Southern District of Texas to certify the Pack Unit prisoners’ lawsuit as a class action, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld that certification. See: Yates v. Collier, 868 F.3d 354 (5th Cir. 2017).
Court-Ordered Relief for
On July 19, 2017, the district court ordered TDCJ to provide relief to heat sensitive prisoners at the Pack Unit – those who “either have a physiological condition that places them at increased risk of heat-related illness, injury, or death (including, but not limited to, suffering from obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, psychiatric conditions, cirrhosis of the liver, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cystic fibrosis, asthma, sweat gland dysfunction, and thyroid dysfunction)”; or “are prescribed an anticonvulsant, anticholinergic, antipsychotic, antihistamine, antidepressant, beta blocker, or diuretics”; or “are over the age of 65.” In the settlement that followed, TDCJ agreed to incarcerate heat-sensitive Pack Unit prisoners in temperatures below 85° F. See: Cole v. Collier, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 97110.
This left TDCJ with a stark choice: It could air condition the prison, or it could move the Pack Unit’s heat-sensitive prisoners – all of whom were minimum custody – into an air-conditioned prison, all of which were designated for higher custody levels. Perhaps that is what prompted TDCJ officials to look for another option, and they lit on the many air-conditioned ad seg and super seg cells already in place and going underused.
The Effect on Non-Pack Unit Prisoners
Soon after the Cole settlement was reached, TDCJ realized that there was no fundamental difference between the Pack Unit and the majority of its other prisons, which also lacked air conditioning. Although older and infirm prisoners were concentrated at the Pack Unit, there were many other prisons with large numbers of prisoners who met the criteria for the heat-sensitive subclass in the Cole case – except they were incarcerated somewhere other than the Pack Unit.
But Texas had just spent tens of millions of dollars litigating the lawsuit for over a decade and lost. So it needed to do something about those other heat-sensitive prisoners before they sued the prison system, using the Cole suit as a persuasive precedent. This led TDCJ to establish a “heat score” for each prisoner – ranging from zero to five – and begin transferring heat-sensitive prisoners to air-conditioned housing. However, the expansion of heat-sensitivity criteria to include all of TDCJ’s more than 118,000 prisoners meant finding thousands of additional air-conditioned cells. The question was how to do so without breaking the budget. The answer was again found in those pre-existing and under-utilized former super seg and ad seg cells.
Origins of Ad Seg and Super Seg
For decades, the legendary Alcatraz federal penitentiary in California was considered the most secure in the U.S. But it wasn’t secure enough for the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The problem was not that prisoners could escape. “The Rock” was virtually escape-proof. Yet Alcatraz prisoners could still assault one another and prison staff. BOP wanted a prison that totally isolated prisoners from one another and staff. The idea echoed British Utilitarian John Stuart Mill’s Panopticon, a 19th-century “innovative” prison in which prisoners were under observation at all times but could not interact or often even see other prisoners and prison staff. The concept had to be abandoned back then, though, as it drove the prisoners “quite mad.”
Nevertheless, BOP pressed forward with design for the U.S. Penitentiary (USP) at Marion, Illinois, which replaced Alcatraz when it opened in 1963. But even USP Marion did not isolate prisoners sufficiently to provide total control. So in 1973, the prison opened its first “Control Unit” cells. These were designed to hold prisoners 23 hours a day, with only brief periods outside the cell for showers or isolated recreation in an enclosed “dog run.”
When staff and prisoners continued to be assaulted and even killed in the Control Unit, BOP looked at California’s Pelican Bay prison, which opened in 1989, and liked what it saw. Pelican Bay was built underground. Its rows of “boxcar cells” had no windows, just a solid door with a plexiglass viewing portal. Showers were inside the cells. Recreation was held in other cells that had no furnishings – so most Pelican Bay prisoners refused the offer of recreation. Prisoners lived their lives in extreme isolation, both from one another and from staff. It was the first real super seg prison.
In 1994, BOP opened its own version of Pelican Bay, the Administrative Maximum Security penitentiary (ADX) in Florence, Colorado. The opening was accompanied by a great deal of publicity and bragging that it was the ultimate in prisons. The highest profile prisoners were incarcerated there – those involved in bombing the World Trade Center in 1993 and the federal building in Oklahoma City two years later. “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski was held there, along with other terrorists.
By the mid-1990s, super segs were the rage among prison administrators. Nearly every prison system wanted at least one, and TDCJ was no exception. Its population had undergone explosive growth – mushrooming from 35,000 prisoners to over 100,000 in less than a decade. Now TDCJ wanted super segs, but the state Legislature was wary of spending yet more money on prisons. That is when the concept of the Expansion Cellblock Building (ECB) emerged.
ECB is a super seg building with 11 pods, each containing 68 boxcar cells. Each ECB had its own medical and dental departments. There was also a small, rudimentary kitchen for reheating food, but no dining facility. But there was no laundry, no library, no education department, no law library, no vocational education facility. The idea was to save money by building each ECB at an existing prison and use its laundry and other facilities to serve ECB prisoners. They, in turn, were locked inside their boxcar cells 23 hours a day. Outdoor recreation required just a small, isolated chain-link cage covered by sheet-metal awnings protruding from the ECB. Contact visitation was not allowed.
The Justification for Super Seg
In the early 1990s, TDCJ slowed down its suppression of gang activities. Prior to that, known gang members and affiliates had been placed in ad seg. The change was not due to a lack of ad seg cells, since each one of TDCJ’s new maximum-security prisons built during the prison expansion of the late 1980s and early 1990s came with 504 air-conditioned ad seg cells.
Once the crackdown on gangs was lightened, gang membership exploded, and gang activities grew and diversified. “Traditional” Texas prison gangs were mostly interested in smuggling contraband such as drugs, tobacco and alcohol into the prisons. The newer “street gangs” added beating, robbery, extortion, murder and sexual enslavement of other prisoners to the mix. These new activities generated a great deal of unfavorable publicity for TDCJ and gave it a justification for housing gang members and affiliates in super seg.
TDCJ sold the state legislature on the idea that ECBs would provide much-needed super seg cells on the cheap. The Legislature bought the idea, and seven ECBs were constructed. They were easy to fill, since TDCJ had identified most of the openly-operating gang members and their affiliates during the time of lax gang suppression. Now those gang members languished in isolation behind walls of concrete and steel where abuse could happen and no one would know.
Segregation Falls Out of Favor
In 1998, renowned television journalist Ted Koppel took an interest in the nationwide growth of super seg and how it would affect the prisoners kept in such stringent isolation. He aired a five-episode, week-long series of Nightline reports on super seg from the prisons that allowed him to interview prisoners. Two of the episodes were recorded at the ECB at the Estelle Unit in Huntsville, Texas. Memorably, Koppel asked the warden what a prisoner had to do to be released from the ECB into general population; the response he received made it clear that no prisoners were ever going to be transferred out of the ECB into general population. ECB placement was for the duration of the prisoner’s sentence.
The backlash against super segs generated by the Nightline series was swift and furious. Soon thereafter, reports were published on scientific studies showing that prolonged periods in super seg caused prisoners lasting psychological damage. There was public pressure to curtail or eliminate super seg. In Texas, this led to the establishment of programs designed to reintroduce ad seg and super seg prisoners into the general population. Between 2006 and July 2017, TDCJ’s population in ad-seg and super-seg dropped from 9,542 to 3,857.
Initially, TDCJ placed medium- and close-custody prisoners into the former ad seg and super seg cells. But the requirement that it house heat sensitive prisoners in air conditioning added a new wrinkle to the issue of what to do with the surplus of air-conditioned ad seg and super seg cells.
Repurposing Super Seg and
Ad Seg Cells
Air conditioning the entire prison system was beyond TDCJ’s budget. It had already spent upwards of $4 million to air condition the Pack Unit. Yet TDCJ had thousands of underutilized super seg and ad seg air-conditioned cells readily available. Further, many of the super seg cells had been converted to two-person occupancy, allowing even more prisoners to be housed in the existing ECBs, which TDCJ helpfully renamed High Security (HS) housing. It was the perfect solution to the problem – what could go wrong?
Cruelty in Architecture and Attitudes
The problem with using a super seg or even ad seg cell to house a minimum custody prisoner is that it is somewhat akin to using a tractor trailer to fetch the family groceries. It is capable of doing the job, but it was not designed for that purpose. So it will be difficult to use and will likely perform the job poorly. Just so with housing minimum custody prisoners – who are supposed to have the greatest degree of liberty available within the prison’s walls – in super seg cellblocks, which are designed to force prisoners to submit to absolute control.
Not only were ECBs built without the usual facilities that allow prisoners to attend programs, religious services, contact visitation or outdoor recreation (except in a small, covered cage) but they were also erected at locations along the outskirts of the prison complex or even physically separated from it by a road – thus making use of the main prison’s facilities difficult by requiring prisoners to be escorted. Given TDCJ’s ongoing and severe staffing shortage, this just isn’t done for the most part. Instead prisoners housed in ECBs simply have little or no access to academic and vocational education, programs, religious services, law libraries, outdoor recreation, craft shops and dining halls.
The prisons that received ECBs were not designed to hold another 800 prisoners. The ECBs strained the laundries and food services facilities when they had single-occupancy cells. Now, converted to double-occupancy, the strain on the original prisons’ resources grew. Clothing was exchanged just thrice weekly instead of the previous six-days-a-week. Meals arrived hours late – and cold. Sack meals consisting of sandwiches often replaced hot meals. Soon, the conditions of confinement in the ECBs drove prisoners to file lawsuits and stage hunger strikes.
Even worse, the guards at ECBs were trained to handle very dangerous prisoners, and their first reaction to anything out of the ordinary was to lock all the prisoners in their cells, douse them with pepper spray or hit them with riot batons. Yet housing young psychiatrically needy patients with elderly, infirm prisoners proved volatile and led to predatory behavior, confrontations, and fights – which led to still more lockdowns and worse. Thus, minimum custody ECB prisoners spent a lot of time confined to their cells even when they or no one in their pod had misbehaved.
An added issue was the fact that some prisoners – especially those belonging to the street gangs – apparently employed a strategy: faking mental illness to gain air conditioning or access to a prison population they could easily dominate and exploit. This has created a dangerous environment for the very same elderly, infirm and/or mentally-ill prisoners TDCJ is supposedly protecting from the heat by housing them in super seg.
The ECBs have also traditionally been kept cold – very cold. The air conditioning is typically set below 60° F, and even lower temperatures are permitted in the winter. TDCJ may believe that supercooling young troublesome prisoners reduces their propensity for violence, but for many elderly and infirm prisoners whom TDCJ proclaimed to be heat sensitive, the frigid temperatures are pure torture. Even when issued a jacket or extra blanket, many ECB prisoners shiver in the dayroom while longing for summer sunshine that would warm their joints and bones. But an ECB-housed prisoner is unlikely to see any sunshine, since most ECBs lack outside recreation open to the sky. Instead, the primary “recreation” is access to a dayroom where walking around for exercise is forbidden. Occasionally, ECB prisoners are allowed some time in a small outside cage under the building’s awnings with little chance of direct sunlight.
Court Challenges by Heat-Sensitive Prisoners to Conditions in ECBs
Effectively, minimum custody prisoners housed in super seg ECBs are being denied access to many options and programs available to other prisoners in their custody level, such as access to a chapel, library, law library, dining hall or large outside recreation yard. The vast majority also complains of excessive cold; of small amounts of cold food served on dirty, greasy trays or in paper sacks; of infestations of mice and roaches; and of not being allowed to opt out of what is supposedly treatment for a medical condition. Another complaint is that the air in the ECBs is polluted with smoke and pepper spray from other (higher-security) prisoners setting fires and engaging in serious misconduct. A common theme is that the heat-restricted prisoners, many of whom are elderly and infirm, are being housed with much younger prisoners in the ECB, often in the same cell, leading to predatory behavior by the younger prisoners.
These complaints have not been limited to the usual grumbling around the dayroom table; several prisoners have filed lawsuits challenging their placement in an ECB cell due to heat sensitivity, as well as the conditions of confinement they face there.
The most comprehensive challenge to ECB conditions is found in a suit filed by prisoner Theodore Streater in 2019. Streater was transferred to the Smith Unit ECB due to alleged heat sensitivity. Once there he complained of poorly ventilated recirculated air that was tainted with smoke and pepper gas spray; of unsanitary and poor-quality food service and preparation; of an unsanitary and unsafe cell; and of his cell light being remotely switched off and on throughout the night. He also said he his placement in ECB forced him to endure medical treatment – air conditioning – for an alleged medical condition – heat sensitivity – against his will. There he was denied access to programming and benefits, and he was celled with a sexually assaultive mentally ill prisoner who had prior violent incidents. Streater said that TDCJ failed to process the grievances he filed about these conditions. So he filed suit pro se in federal court for the Northern District of Texas, alleging civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, as well as violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. ch. 126 § 12101, et seq., and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (RA), 29 U.S.C. § 701, et seq.
A magistrate judge recommended dismissal of most of the claims, finding that Streater had no constitutional right to a grievance process, no proof that ECB placement is medical treatment, no constitutional right to a particular medical classification, had not alleged an actual physical injury with respect to the cellmate who had repeatedly tried to hug him, and that the food and cell conditions were not below “minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities” and thus not constitutional violations. Further, the magistrate said that Streater had failed to show the named defendants were subjectively aware of any safety issues. On top of that, the food quality issues he raised were not constitutional violations but mere negligence, the magistrate said, citing Flowers v. Dent, 21 F.3d 1109 (5th Cir. 1994). And the constant illumination he complained of was reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest in good security, the magistrate added, citing Havarria v. Stacks, 102 F. App’x 433 (5th Cir. 2004).
Streater’s ADA and RA claims also failed because he denied that he was sensitive to heat despite the fact that TDCJ classified him as heat sensitive. This made him a person who “has no impairment but is perceived by the [defendant] as having a substantially limiting impairment,” the magistrate said. However, Streater failed to allege facts that showed Defendants considered him disabled or denied him access to programs based on the perceived disability. Merely being housed in a location primarily used to house heat sensitive prisoners does not demonstrate that the defendants considered him disabled within the meaning of the ADA and RA, the magistrate opined. A vague allegation that defendants “conspired” to discriminate against him based on his disability was also insufficient. The only claim not recommended for dismissal was one under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) against the warden of Smith Unit, for failing to provide Streater a pork-free diet as required by his religious beliefs. See: Streater v. Davis, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 260765 (N.D. Tex.).
The district court adopted most of the magistrate’s findings and recommendations, though it didn’t dismiss the ADA and RA claims against TDCJ for failing to afford Streater the same programs and activities afforded non-disabled prisoners. It found that Streater had alleged he was disabled within the meaning of the ADA, including disabilities such as food allergies and medical conditions other than heat sensitivity. Therefore, it was premature to dismiss the ADA and RA claims against Defendants in their official capacity, which were essentially claims against TDCJ. See: Streater v. Davis, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 233222 (N.D. Tex.).
With that Streater folded, voluntarily dismissing his remaining claims – most likely to preserve his indigent status in federal court on appeal – on December 29, 2021. See: Streater v. Davis, USDC (N.D. Tex.), Case No. 5:19-cv-00263. However, his appeal was dismissed as frivolous by the Fifth Circuit on October 18, 2022. See: Streater v. Davis, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 28926 (5th Cir.).
While Streater’s suit was pending, prisoner Tony Orlando Myles was placed in the ECB at the Lewis Unit, after TDCJ determined he was heat sensitive. In 2020, he filed a pro se civil rights complaint over the poor quality of the food in the ECB, which included “cold food, nasty food and food with roaches all over the food.” However, the federal court for the Eastern District of Texas determined that he had named supervisory personnel as defendants without making a showing of each defendant’s personal involvement in the alleged denial of a constitutional right and dismissed the complaint on April 7, 2022. See: Myles v Barlow, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 64843 (E.D. Tex.).
William Boyd Pierce is an elderly prisoner who was transferred to the ECB at the Estelle Unit after TDCJ determined he was sensitive to heat. His principal complaint there was that it was too cold in the ECB, aggravating his arthritis and other medical conditions. All the named defendants were senior supervisory personnel of warden’s rank or higher. The Southern District of Texas dismissed the complaint on March 23, 2020, after finding Pierce had failed to allege facts showing any defendant’s personal involvement in the alleged violation of constitutional rights. Further, it held that the allegations fell short of a constitutional violation as he has no constitutional right to a particular housing within the prison and especially since prison staff had issued Pierce a jacket and extra blanket after he complained of the cold. See: Pierce v. Collier, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49960 (S.D. Tex.). He, too, struck out on appeal at the Fifth Circuit. See: Pierce v. Collier, 851 F. App’x 530 (5th Cir. 2021).
Thus far, prisoners have been unsuccessful in challenging the use of ECBs to house heat sensitive prisoners. However, there are several lawsuits still pending and the very fact that so many prisoners are willing to pay over $500 to file a lawsuit means that they take the issue very seriously. We can expect to see additional litigation on this issue in the future.
Hunger Strikes Over Conditions in Ad Seg and Super Seg
Some prisoners have litigated to bring attention to the inhumane conditions in ECBs and ad seg. Others have gone on hunger strike. On Christmas Day 2017, 45 segregation prisoners at the Allred Unit began a 10-day hunger strike protesting their lack of recreation and tiny portions of cold food. Prisoners in the Allred ECB still complain about those same issues five years on.
A wider hunger strike began among 72 segregated prisoners at several Texas prisons in January 2023. Fifteen days later, 19 were still refusing food. They were protesting conditions in segregation, the use of indefinite segregated confinement, and the lack of opportunities for physical exercise. At that time, over 500 Texas prisoners had been continuously confined in segregation for more than a decade.
The Cool Beds Non-Program
TDCJ administrators typically refer to the assignment of prisoners to air-conditioned housing based on their heat sensitivity as the “Cool Beds Program.” Prison healthcare providers state that it is a classification program, not a medical issue, and they have nothing to do with it. But the staff at TDCJ’s Classification and Records Division deny that it is a program at all, stating instead that it is a classification “decision.” Nonetheless, the person in charge of it bears the title, “Program Supervisor.”
What actually happens is that a computer program overseen by the State Classification Committee periodically scans all TDCJ prisoner records, including medical records, and assigns each prisoner a heat score based upon his or her age, weight, medical and psychiatric infirmities, medical history and current medications – essentially using a modified form of the criteria for heat sensitivity from the Pack Unit lawsuit. The assigned heat scores range from P-0 (not sensitive to heat) to P-5 (extremely sensitive to heat). When TDCJ began housing heat sensitive prisoners in air conditioning, it began with those who had the highest heat scores. It has worked its way down to the P-2s and P-1s.
Of course, having a computer program not created or overseen by medical professionals and relying on it to make decisions based on a person’s medical condition and medications is asking for trouble. Many of the prisoners housed in the frozen isolation of the ECBs who do not typically have problems with heat have asked why they were chosen for the program when others from their former prisons who are older and obviously struggling with the summertime heat were not.
The likely answer is that the computer program assigning the heat scores has some built in assumptions that may not always be true. Further, there seems to be no consideration for those prisoners who are more sensitive to cold than to heat. Many elderly people suffer from low thyroid function, a condition that depresses the body’s metabolism and makes it easy to become chilled and very difficult to warm back up. Yet it appears that the program does not scan for factors that would make a person sensitive to cold temperatures.
Perhaps the lack of understanding by courts and computer programs about prisoners who do not want air conditioning has its origins in the very different way prisoners and non-prisoners experience it. To a non-prisoner, a too-cold temperature is easily remedied by turning up the thermostat or grabbing a sweater. Those options are not available to the incarcerated, of course. What for a free person is a brief and minor annoyance can be sheer day-and-night misery for those behind bars.
The Gib Lewis ECB: A Study
Among TDCJ prisoners in the Cool Bed non-program, the ECB at the Lewis Unit in Woodville is known for its especially harsh conditions. There, a very rural location – which makes it difficult to find staff and less likely to receive oversight – combined with a culture of violence and oppression by both staff and prisoners has created a prison hellhole that is both miserable and deadly. As always, prisoners pay the price. And the price, in this case, is abuse that is sometimes fatal.
The guard culture at Lewis ECB is regularly reported to be openly violent and aggressive. One guard captain assigned there was overheard bragging to other guards about her “record-breaking” use of chemical agents. Guards have openly threatened prisoners with beatings for such offenses as “talking back” or not moving fast enough.
All ECBs have holding cages in various locations. These three-foot-by-four-foot cells have no furnishings, no toilet, no water. They are intended to briefly contain a high-security prisoner who is waiting to be processed into the ECB or waiting on a health care provider. At Lewis, though, they were used as housing, with prisoners living in holding cages for days and even weeks. This practice went on for years until Reuters and Texas Public Radio published articles about it in February 2023. The reaction to the bad publicity was swift, and the holding cages are no longer being used to abuse prisoners at the Lewis ECB. But no TDCJ staff was disciplined or fired for the abuse or the related contemporaneous practice of having incoming prisoners sleep on the floor of the intake area hallway without a mattress for days.
Even greater brutality resulted in the death of Jacinto De La Garza at the Lewis ECB on November 11, 2021. Del La Garza, 26, set a fire in his cell, probably to protest not being given sufficient out-of-cell time. Cody DeGlandon, an inexperienced guard, called for Sgt. Danna Warren to authorize opening Del La Garza’s cell door. But Warren reportedly told him, “I don’t care if he dies.” And that is exactly what happened – Del La Garza remained in his cell for over a half an hour while the flames climbed halfway up the door. After about 45 minutes, a lieutenant arrived with a team of guards and told them to open the cell door. Smoke billowed out while they retrieved Del La Garza’s body. “One of his thick rubber shower shoes was melted onto his foot,” according to prisoners who witnessed the events.
TDCJ investigators initially said Del La Garza died of a heart attack. They later amended the cause of death to smoke inhalation. The sergeant was fired, the lieutenant resigned, as did DeGlandon, who noted that he “spent a year in Iraq with the Army and everyone came back alive, and I spent two months in prisons and this happened.”
The attitude displayed by Lewis staff in the Del La Garza and holding cell incidents is typical of the guard culture that has developed within the isolated and violent world of ECBs when they were used exclusively as super segs. Many of these guards are quick to use a baton or pepper spray, and they couldn’t care less about the welfare of the prisoners housed there, many of whom are verbally or physically abusive to prison staff.
This attitude and short staffing have reportedly resulted in a virtual takeover of the Lewis ECB by street gangs, who enforce their own rules and openly deal and use drugs – even in the dayroom, right in front of surveillance cameras. Multiple prisoner deaths have been recorded and chalked up to homicide, suicide or drug overdose. For instance, in March 2023 alone, the ECB experienced three prisoner deaths. Two were being investigated as possibly involving drug overdoses, while the third was being looked into as a suicide or possible homicide.
On January 6, 2023, Lewis ECB prisoner Jason Mark Ryder killed his cellmate, Danny Luken, who was much smaller and much older. Ryder had reportedly threatened previously to kill any old man they put in the cell with him. Luken had been pleading for help from ECB staff for days to no avail.
On August 5, 2022, an unnamed Lewis ECB prisoner was murdered and his corpse hanged, in an apparent attempt to pass it off as a suicide – which succeeded, until puncture marks were found under the noose, and the cause of death was changed to homicide.
Unfortunately, the Lewis ECB is not alone at the bottom of the super seg barrel. Prisoners interviewed for this article who have been there and at the ECBs in the Allred Unit, Estelle Unit and Stiles Unit report that conditions are just as bad in all of them.
Where Are We Now?
It is difficult to tell how effective the Cool Beds non-program has been, since it has not been in effect for very long and has yet to house all of the prisoners TDCJ deems heat sensitive. What is clear is that prisoners are still dying of excessive heat, and TDCJ is still paying awards and settlements in lawsuits brought by their survivors. That, as much as the Pack Unit lawsuit, motivated TDCJ to do something about its heat sensitive charges.
For instance, in March 2019, Texas paid $253,000 to settle a lawsuit brought over the heat-related death of 36-year-old Quintero Devale Jones at the McConnell Unit. The plaintiffs were represented by Scott Medlock of the Edwards Law Group, the same firm that represented the Pack Unit plaintiffs. See: Jones v. Livingston, (U.S.D.C. S.D. Tex), Case No. 4:17-cv-00335.
A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 13% of Texas prisoner deaths during the warm months in 2001 through 2019 were attributable to excessive heat. That was 30 times greater than the percentage of heat-related deaths in the overall U.S. population during those same months.
But Texas is not prepared to throw in the towel. When a medical examiner gave a preliminary autopsy report blaming “environmental hyperthermia” for the December 2018 death of Michael Unit prisoner Robert Earl Robinson, 54, TDCJ fought back, claiming hyperthermia was impossible because Robinson was housed in an air-conditioned cell. However, the final autopsy report also listed the cause of death as hyperthermia. It occurred during a statewide heat wave when the high temperature hit 103° F around the prison. Nonetheless, TDCJ left Robinson’s name off its list of self-reported heat-related prisoner deaths in 2018.
The problem of dangerous heat in Texas prisons will likely not be solved until the state bites the bullet and air conditions all its prison units. The use of former ad seg and super seg cells to house heat sensitive prisoners is hopefully just a stop-gap measure. Still Texas needs to do more to treat those minimum-custody prisoners now stuck in the former segregation housing at the custody level they have earned. Otherwise, horror stories will continue to emerge from the ECBs and ad seg buildings.
Some easily-implemented, low-cost remedies include setting the “cool beds” air conditioning temperature at 75° F, which is the recommended temperature for all public buildings – and 15 degrees warmer than the frigid ECBs. Also, only prisoners of similar age and custody level should be housed in the same pod. Cell door tracks could be modified to allow a padlock to be used by minimum custody prisoners to control the opening and closing of their own cells during the day. Or prisoners could simply be allowed to opt out of the cool beds scheme. And why can’t minimum-custody cool bed prisoners eat in the regular prison dining hall? Whether TDCJ will implement any of these reforms remains to be seen.
The stakes are high. According to the Texas Tribune, 41 TDCJ prisoners have died since 2023’s heat wave began. Over a dozen were under 40. Yet TDCJ insists that no Texas prisoner has died from excessive heat in over a decade.
Sources: Houston Chronicle, Houston Public Media, JAMA Network, KFDM, Texas Public Radio, Texas A&M University, Texas Tribune
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