Prisoners Dying from Inhumane Conditions
Dostoevsky said: ”The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” If that is true, then America is far from being a civilized society. In July and August of 2011, 10 inmates of the Texas State Prison System died of heat related causes. All 10 were being held in areas that were not air conditioned. Some had lost consciousness and each of them died from hypothermia with their core body temperature rising above 105 degrees. Think about that for a second, they died as a result of their core body temperature exceeding 105 degrees.
The family of Larry Gene McCollum is suing the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for wrongful death. McCollum was 58 years old and three days into a one year sentence when he collapsed in Hutchins State Jail, located outside of Dallas, Texas. He died in a hospital hours later. His body temperature was 109 degrees. In the week before McCollum’s death, Hutchin’s prison officials had recorded indoor temperatures ranging between 100 and 102 degrees.
Only 21 of the 111 prisons in the State are air conditioned. Those are facilities that are classified as either geriatric or psychiatric. While it is true that there is no constitutional right to air conditioning, it is also true that the constitution prevents cruel and unusual treatment. Subjecting a human to temperatures that result in death seems to meet the definition of, cruel and unusual treatment.
Texas State law does require that jails maintain a temperature between 65 to 85 degrees, however for reasons that are primarily financial, that same law does not apply to the Texas State Prisons. Most prisons in Texas were built without air conditioning, and opponents argue that the cost of retrofitting would be prohibitively high. However, their arguments assume that this problem can only be resolved by adding air conditioning and does not take into account other ideas which would increase air flow within the prisons. Nor does it take into account the moral imperative that subjecting a human to temperatures that result in death cannot be allowed because it is too expensive to correct.
Politicians live in fear of being labeled as ‘soft’ on crime. The desire to be perceived as tough on crime has led to a plethora of laws and sentencing requirements which have resulted in overcrowded prisons. Texas State Senator, Democrat John Whitmire, said that he personally finds nothing particularly alarming about the heat related deaths, since the total prison population exceeds 150,000. Mr. Whitmire is a Houston Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
Nearly everyone enjoys a good game of ‘blaming the victim’. The reasoning that it is simply the fault of the prisoner themselves is far too simple to ignore, if they had not done something to end up in prison then they would not have died. Remarkably, this sentiment was echoed by Mr. Keith Price who is both a former warden of the Anderson County, Coffield Unit prison, and currently an associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at West Texas A&M University. When asked about the heat related deaths Mr. Price was quoted as saying: “Many inmates are poorly equipped to manage their lives and thus make poor decisions. I do not believe it is up to the taxpayers to provide air-conditioning for inmates when some simple self-discipline would avoid many of these problems.” It is also pointed out that each of the inmates had a history of hypertension, obesity or some other medical condition that contributed to their death. These facts are true and are not in dispute. What is also not in dispute is that prisoners are being subjected to conditions that are killing them.
I agree with Dostoevsky that a society’s prisons are a reflection on that society. Our prisons are run for profit with punishment as the primary goal. The idea of rehabilitation is characterized as absurd, impossible or the responsibility of the individual and not society as a whole. The deaths of the 10 prisoners in Texas are an indictment of our prisons as well as our society. The punishment should fit the crime and what happened to those men, was, indeed, cruel and unusual punishment. As a society, perhaps it is not possible to be our brother’s keeper; however, society should never be our brother’s killer.