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

ByJolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune
Wednesday, June 28, 2023
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Since a heat wave gripped Texas, at least nine inmates, including two men in their 30s, have died of heart attacks or unknown causes in prisons lacking air conditioning. It's been 11 years since the state last classified a death as heat-related.

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.

The video above is from a previous story.

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.

SEE RELATED STORY: Murder, armed robbery suspects die in Harris County Jail custody due to preexisting conditions

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, Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesperson Amanda Hernandez said.

"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.

SEE ALSO: 32-year-old dies after asking for medical help in Harris County Jail, sheriff's office says

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.

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