GALVESTON, Texas (CN) - Four Texas inmates died of heat stroke in brutally hot prisons, and nine others have died for the same reason in Texas prisons since 2007, families claim in court.
Families of the late Rodney Gerald Adams, Kenneth Wayne James and Douglas Hudson sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, its executive director Brad Livingston, The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, which partners with the TDCJ to provide medical care to inmates, and other TDCJ officials and wardens.
The family of the late Robert Allen Webb sued the same defendants in a separate complaint.
In their complaint, the three families say they "bring this lawsuit to prevent more men from dying of heat stroke in the brutally hot TDCJ Gurney Unit and seek redress for their relatives who perished at the Gurney Unit."
"Prisoners are regularly dying of heat stroke in TDCJ custody at the Gurney Unit in Tennessee Colony, Texas," the families say in the complaint.
Webb died in the "Hodge Unit."
In the complaint about the three dead men, the families say: "Like most other TDCJ units, the Gurney Unit inmate living areas are not air conditioned, and apparent indoor temperatures routinely exceed 100 degrees. These temperatures last late into the night, providing no relief to prisoners. Even early in the morning, indoor apparent temperatures are sweltering.
"As each of the defendants named individually have long known and discussed internally at high-level TDCJ and UTMB leadership meetings well before 2011, temperatures this elevated cause the human body to shut down. As the body can no longer cool itself, body systems fail. If there is no immediate intervention, extreme temperatures will cause death."
Defendant Robert Eason was the TDCJ's regional director for its Gurney Unit when the inmates died, according to the complaint.
"Even though ten men died of heat stroke in 2011 - and eight of them died in his 'region' - Eason did not consider these deaths a serious problem. In fact, in the face of these deaths, he believed TDCJ was doing a 'wonderful job' and '[didn't] have a problem with heat-related deaths,'" the complaint states.
"Eason's direct supervisors, [Brad] Livingston, [TDCJ Correctional Institutions Division Director Rick] Thaler and [Thaler's Deputy Director William] Stephens, were similarly unconcerned. The deaths of prisoners from heat stroke at the Gurney Unit and system wide were regularly discussed at meetings Thaler and Stephens held with their deputies, including Eason.
"Even though the existing policies were obviously inadequate, Thaler, Stephens, and Eason continued to follow the same deadly course of conduct. Air conditioning the Gurney Unit or other prisons was never even discussed. Nor was moving individuals with heat-sensitive medical conditions or disabilities to air-conditioned prisons discussed or implemented."
The TDCJ officials were also keenly aware that certain prisoners should not be in the heat, the families say.
"It was well known to TDCJ and UTMB leadership that people with certain medical conditions, like diabetes or hypertension, or who take certain medications, like psychotropics or diuretics, are much more vulnerable to extreme temperatures. Their medical conditions prevent their bodies from regulating their temperature, putting them at much greater risk of death," the families say in the complaint.
Each of the four inmates had been prescribed pyschotropics or diuretics before their deaths, according to a chart in the complaints.
They shared characteristics with the other inmates who have died in Texas prisons since 2007, their families say.
"These thirteen men all shared certain characteristics. Most took psychotropic drugs to treat some form of mental illness, suffered from diabetes, or took diuretics to treat hypertension," the complaint states. "Many arrived in non-air-conditioned TDCJ facilities, like the Gurney Unit, shortly before their deaths - they were not acclimated to the heat, and/or had not received initial physicals. Most collapsed in the middle of the night, or were found dead early in the morning. And they all died in late July and early August - the hottest days of the Texas summer."
Adding to the intensity of the deadly Texas summer heat, the families say, the Gurney Unit's windows are sealed shut, making the prison housing areas "like an oven."
Prisoners are not allowed to have personal fans at the Gurney Unit and water is in short supply, the families say.
"Defendants provide grossly inadequate amounts of water to help prisoners survive the extremely high temperatures indoors," the complaint states. "TDCJ policy requires officers only to bring one large jug per fifty-four prisoners to the prisoner living areas (at most) three times a day. Throughout the system, and at Gurney, the jugs did not contain enough water for each prisoner to drink enough to protect them from the heat, and are frequently filled with lukewarm water. While Director Eason has stated the provision of water should occur as much as possible and should not be limited to three times a day, the provision of sufficient water to stay hydrated did not occur at the Gurney Unit." (Parentheses in complaint.)
The contrast between Texas county jails, which are required to keep indoor temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees, and Texas state prisons, are a shock to the prisoners' systems when they transfer to a state jail, the families say.
"When prisoners arrive from temperature-controlled jails to the brutally hot Gurney Unit, the defendants know they are at heightened risk of heat-related injury or death," the complaint states.
Some of the Gurney Unit have air conditioning, the families say.
"There are some parts of the Gurney Unit where prisoners could live, at least until they receive the critical intake physical to identify which prisoners suffer from heat-sensitive medical conditions," the complaint states. "But TDCJ and UTMB officials, including Livingston, Thaler, Stephens, Eason and [Dennis] Miller, do not take any steps to house prisoners with heat-sensitive conditions in those areas.
"Additionally, certain areas, like the offices of Livingston, Eason, Stephens, Thaler, and Miller, are air-conditioned - a comfortable 75 degrees. TDCJ even air-conditions the armory at the prison because it considers possible damage to its weaponry more important than possible, or even likely, death to the inmate population."
Douglas Hudson and Kenneth James were housed in the TDCJ's Gurney Unit in Tennessee Colony. They died on July 25 and Aug. 13, 2011, according to the complaint. Hudson was 62 and James was 52.
Rodney Adams was also a prisoner in the Gurney Unit when he died on Aug. 3, 2012 at age 45.
Robert Allen Webb died in August 2011 in the TDCJ's Hodge Unit in Rusk at age 50.
Their families want punitive damages for Americans with Disabilities Act violations and wrongful death.
They are represented by Jeff Edwards with the Texas Civil Rights Project in Austin.
The defendants include the TDCJ's prison manager Rick Thaler, the supervisor for all TDCJ guards William Stephens, former TDCJ regional director Robert Eason and Dennis Miller, former warden of the TDCJ's Gurney Unit.