BEEVILLE – The family of a William G. McConnell Unit inmate has filed a lawsuit in federal court in Houston against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
The suit, filed in the Southern District of Texas in Houston last week, stems from the death of a 36-year-old inmate at the William G. McConnell Unit on July 31, 2015.
According to reports, the victim, identified as the minor son of Quintero Devale Jones of Dallas, died because correctional officers at the unit in Bee County ignored his calls for help as he was suffering a heat-related asthma attack in his cell.
McConnell, like most TDCJ facilities, is not air-conditioned.
According to the suit, the unit located just southeast of Beeville, had previous heat stroke related deaths in 2004 and 2011.
The suit claims that correctional officers had confiscated Jones’ asthma rescue inhaler during a shakedown search that morning. The suit alleges that he died that afternoon after lying on the floor of his cell calling for help.
The suit alleges that Jones and his cell mates shouted for 20 minutes that he needed help.
Jones was 36 years old, and when officers finally did enter his cell to administer chest compressions his heart had stopped beating.
The temperature in Beeville that day had reached 110 degrees by 3:15 p.m., and the suit claims that he had been lying in the floor of the cell to avoid the hot, cinder block walls.
TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said the department would not comment on the suit.
However, the department did release a statement saying that the well-being of staff and offenders is a top priority for the agency.
That includes making sure that both the staff and the offenders in work and housing areas are provided with water and ice. Also, offender activity is restricted during the hottest days of the year.
In addition, offenders working in areas of extreme heat in the fields, in maintenance and on yard squads are given frequent water breaks.
“There are 106 TDCJ facilities across the state,” Clark said in a release last week. “Of those, 28 have air conditioning in all offender housing areas.”
Offenders are transported during the coolest parts of the day, and steps are taken to make sure offenders load and unload from vehicles as quickly as possible, Clark said.
Offenders also are screened to make sure the selected mode of transportation is appropriate for the individual.
Water coolers on prison buses are refilled at various times of the day during a trip so that water temperatures are appropriate, he added.
The fans used in units are designed to move air through structures and exhaust air out of the structure.
Systems used in many of the units take advantage of fresh air exchange systems or prevailing winds to assist in the movement of air, Clark said.
Ribbons are attached to vents to ensure blowers are being used correctly and additional cold showers are allowed for offenders.
Offenders also are allowed to wear shorts in day rooms and recreational areas, he said. All areas are allowed fans, and offenders are allowed access to air conditioned respite areas when needed.
Newly hired officers receive training so they are aware of the signs and treatment of heat and cold-related illness, he added.
Also, all officers carry pocket cards that highlight the symptoms of heat and cold related health threats.
TDCJ staff and medical providers work closely together to make sure everyone knows which offenders are susceptible to heat-related issues, and lists are provided to housing officers who conduct wellness checks on offenders.
In his statement, Clark said many of the state’s facilities were built in the 1980s and ’90s, at a time when air conditioning was not commonly installed in buildings.
Prisons built at that time were specifically approved by federal courts in the Ruiz case, and air conditioning was not included in the guidelines because of the added cost of construction, maintenance and utility expenses.
Retrofitting those units with air conditioning would be extremely expensive.
The case of Ruiz v. Estelle is described as the most far-reaching lawsuit on the conditions of prison incarceration in American history
In 1972, David Ruíz alleged that the conditions of his incarceration, such as overcrowding, lack of access to health care, and abusive security practices, were a violation of his constitutional rights.
In 1979, a ruling was issued that the conditions of imprisonment within the TDC prison system constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the United States Constitution.
In Jones’ case, he was not added to the list of heat-related fatalities because his death was a result of an asthma attack.
TDCJ reports indicate that the last heat-related death in one of its units was in 2012.
One report on the lawsuit in the Jones case mentioned that inmates of the TDCJ’s Wallace Pack Unit near Navasota in Grimes County had petitioned U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison of the Southern District of Texas concerning heat-related deaths in Texas prisons.
The injunction was requested after earlier heat-related deaths in the state. Last month, Ellison granted an injunction in the case and ordered the Texas prison system to provide a cooler living environment for heat-sensitive inmates.
TDCJ officials in Huntsville are expected to provide a plan to cool living units in that facility.
Court documents showed that Jones also had blood pressure issues at the time of his death and that he had taken calcium channel blockers on the day he died. Those factors could have placed him at risk in high-temperature conditions.
Jones also had been treated for an asthma attack on June 5, before his death, and he was to have kept his inhaler with him at all times and use it multiple times a day.
Clark said the Jones lawsuit has been filed in the court of Federal District Judge David Hittner of the Southern District of Texas.
The TDCJ will be defended in the suit by attorneys with the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Gary Kent is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 120, or at reporter@mySouTex.com