BY Jolie McCullough
Last summer, Texas officials repeatedly asserted that sweltering temperatures inside uncooled prisons were being handled adequately and that all heat-related illnesses were minor. A recent state report on one inmate’s death, however, says that he died from the heat.
The prison system is contesting that report, claiming the cause of death is based on a preliminary autopsy finding by the medical examiner, and that the inmate was actually housed in an air-conditioned cell.
According to the in-custody death report sent to the Texas attorney general’s office in late December, Robert Earl Robinson, 54, died July 19 at the Michael Unit in East Texas from “environmental hyperthermia” — often referred to as fatal heat stroke. The report states that Robinson was found unresponsive by security staff and taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. He had been in prison for nearly 30 years on a 45-year home burglary sentence out of Lubbock County, prison records show.
Robinson’s death was first reported to the state eight days after it occurred, with a listed cause of death as “pending autopsy.” Texas law dictates that the prison system must report all inmate deaths to the attorney general within 30 days, and the reports are listed in an online database. An amended report with medical examiner results and a cause of death of hyperthermia was filed the Friday before Christmas. A prison spokesperson said Tuesday that report is still not final.
“The housing area where this offender was located is air conditioned which caused [the Texas Department of Criminal Justice] to question the preliminary report,” prison spokesperson Jeremy Desel told the Texas Tribune in an email. “We continue to work with the independent Office of Inspector General to provide additional details to the Medical Examiner.”
Desel said he did not know why the December report, which he claimed was preliminary, was filed to the attorney general. The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston performs TDCJ autopsies, and the prison system’s inspector general is listed as the reporting agency for in-custody death reports.
Robinson’s death came at the front of a statewide heat wave where prison officials repeatedly reported only minor heat illnesses and months after Texas settled a years-long lawsuit over the lack of air conditioning in one state prison. Almost 75 percent of Texas’ more than 100 state-run prisons and jails — including the Michael Unit — do not have air conditioning in most housing areas. However, those kept in solitary confinement are housed in cells equipped with air conditioning. National weather data shows the high in the area on the day of Robinson’s death was 103 degrees.
The lawsuit, which only applied to the Wallace Pack Unit near College Station, pointed to at least 23 heat stroke deaths in the Texas prison system since 1998, 10 of which occurred during a 2011 heat wave. But the state repeatedly claimed that no reported heat-related deaths had occurred since 2012, arguing that new practices — like more personal fans and ice water — combated high temperatures and provided a safe environment for inmates, even if it might be uncomfortable.
“We … are confident that TDCJ is already doing what is constitutionally required to adequately safeguard offenders from heat-related illnesses,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in 2017 after the federal judge in the lawsuit slammed the prison department for being “deliberately indifferent” to the risk the heat posed for medically vulnerable inmates.
On July 20 last year, one day after Robinson’s death, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice initiated a new incident command system to further combat potential heat-related illnesses as temperatures soared over 100 degrees across a large swath of the state. Desel said at the time that the department had minimized outside work hours, served cooler meals and provided more cool showers and ice water. On July 25, he said that there had been four minor heat-related illnesses since the system was started. Robinson’s death wasn’t mentioned.
“What we’re doing is working,” Desel told the Tribune at the time regarding the new policies.
In late August, Desel told the Dallas Morning News that there had been 19 heat-related illnesses since July 20 — he again said they were all minor, with people being treated and released. And in records provided to the Morning News at the end of the year, the department cited 79 heat-related illnesses of inmates and prison staff between Jan. 1 and Oct. 5. Again, Robinson’s death was not listed. The amended report on Robinson’s death was submitted to the attorney general one day after the Morning News article was published.
The Tribune, which reviewed all other prison deaths in the online database from June 1 to Aug. 31, 2018, found no other deaths that were reported to be caused by hyperthermia. Plaintiffs and the judge in the Pack lawsuit have noted that heat stroke deaths are “vastly underreported,” with heat sometimes being overlooked when determining a cause of death.
According to the National Institutes for Health, hyperthermia is “an abnormally high body temperature caused by a failure of the heat-regulating mechanisms of the body to deal with the heat coming from the environment.” Heat stroke, the life-threatening form of hyperthermia, occurs when the body temperature rises above about 104 degrees.
Heat stroke deaths and heat-related illness of inmates and guards in Texas prisons have gained increased attention since the lawsuit against the Pack Unit was filed in 2014 and several wrongful death lawsuits appeared after the 2011 heat wave. A federal judge in 2017 ruled that the conditions were unconstitutional for medically vulnerable inmates, like those with heart conditions or diabetes, and issued temporary orders for the state to place that group in air-conditioned housing during the summers. There are currently about 30,000 air-conditioned beds in the prison system, according to recent legislative testimony from department leaders.
Last February, the state settled the lawsuit and went beyond the order, agreeing to install air conditioning in the prison, as well as beginning to move the more medically vulnerable inmates throughout the entire prison system into cooler beds. Originally, a state expert said the cost to install air conditioning would be more than $20 million, but, after the state’s legal bill reached more than $7 million, a new installation estimate came to around $4 million.
Several other lawsuits have recently appeared against what they claim is inhumane and dangerous heat inside prisons, where temperatures and heat index can rise above the already high outside readings. Two of the suits target a prison that neighbors the Michael Unit in Tennessee Colony, as was first reported by the Morning News.
With the Pack lawsuit settled, the prison department is asking the state Legislature for $5 million to enhance security at its air-conditioned units to be able to house more inmates in cool beds and install air conditioning in the Hodge prison, which houses inmates with developmental disabilities.
Two Democrats, state Sen. José Menéndez of El Paso and state Rep. Terry Canales of Edinburg, have also filed long shot bills this year to require that Texas prison facilities be kept between 65 and 85 degrees in light of the publicity brought about by the lawsuit. The bills match what is currently required at all local and county jails.
Disclosure: The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston is a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.