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Deadly extreme heat and deliberate indifference inside Texas prisons

July 25, 2018

by Keith ‘Malik’ Washington

“Plaintiffs allege that ‘sweltering temperatures inside buildings where [TDCJ] houses inmates,’ including the Wallace Pack Unit, have caused at least 12 prisoners in the Texas prison system to die from heat stroke and hundreds more prisoners to suffer from heat-related illnesses since 2011. They (plaintiffs) allege that defendants (TDCJ) have done nothing to lower the temperatures inside the housing areas.

“They ask the Court to ‘[r]emedy ongoing violations of the law and the Constitution by granting declaratory and injunctive relief, as set out in [the] Complaint, on behalf of Plaintiffs and the class’ and to ‘[p]ermanently enjoin Defendants to abate the risk of serious harm described above by taking steps including, but not limited to, maintaining a heat index of 88 degrees or lower inside the Pack Unit’s housing areas.’” – Excerpt from Memorandum and Order of Federal Judge Keith P. Ellison in Civil Action No. 4:14-CV-1698, Keith Cole et al, Plaintiffs, vs Brad Livingston et al, Defendants, United States District Court, SD Texas, Houston Division, June 14, 2016

Finally, fans have been installed in Darrington Unit, one of many sweltering Texas prisons. – Photo: Jolie McCullough, Texas Tribune

A settlement has been reached in the Pack Unit lawsuit, and air conditioning will be installed temporarily during the summer months, until the Texas legislature allocates funding for the installation of permanent AC units.

Last year, I attempted to file a motion on behalf of myself and all Texas prisoners who are similarly situated to the prisoners at the Pack Unit. The Texas Civil Rights Project, based out of Houston, requested that I withdraw the motion because it had the potential of delaying relief for Pack Unit prisoners.

I considered the argument made by the lawyers at TCRP, and I agreed to withdraw my motion. I let the TCRP know that Ad-Seg prisoners housed at the Eastham Unit, and many other units like it, were suffering horribly in the summer months, just like those at Pack Unit.

It has been my hope that lawyers with the TCRP and the Edwards law firm would consider placing Eastham Unit, especially the Ad-Seg section, on their list of probable contenders to represent in the next deadly extreme heat lawsuit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

It’s hot in here!

In early May 2018, Calvin Burnap, Julie Schneyer, Twitch and other members of our support team filed an ombudsman complaint on my behalf and on behalf of every heat-sensitive prisoner housed at the Eastham Ad-Seg Unit. What brought this complaint about was the fact that although I am a chronic seizure patient, who takes the anti-convulsant medication Dilautin, I was being housed on 3-Row and the temperatures were climbing fast in Texas, as we have been experiencing unseasonably hot temperatures here.

Just like in 2017, I and many other prisoners housed at Eastham were noticing TDCJ employees weren’t very interested in ensuring we received cold water and ice continuously, as stated by TDCJ Ombudsman Bryan Buck. Furthermore, University of Texas Medical Branch personnel forgot that I should be on the heat restriction list and should therefore be housed on 1-Row instead of the ultra-hot 3-Row. So our thinking was, “How many others did they ‘forget’ about?”

In early May 2018, Calvin Burnap, Julie Schneyer, Twitch and other members of our support team filed an ombudsman complaint on my behalf and on behalf of every heat-sensitive prisoner housed at the Eastham Ad-Seg Unit.

As a result of the ombudsman complaint, I was moved from 3-Row to 1-Row on E-Line. That was on May 16, 2018. Eastham Unit was on lockdown and the yearly Ramadan Fast had begun. I am an observant Sunni Muslim.

During lockdowns, we are given very paltry “johnnies” or brown bag snacks, which consist of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a meat sandwich and a couple of raisins or prunes.

By policy, no beverage is provided during a lockdown until one week has expired, but there was a problem! The heat index had been creeping way past 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and TDCJ policy specifically states in AD-10.64 (Rev 8) 2) that water and ice shall be provided at meal times – but that didn’t happen.

However, for those of us fasting for Ramadan, things got much worse. On May 18, 2018, during the Iftar (evening meal), Muslim prisoners received no water, no ice, no cold beverage – nothing, just an extremely paltry “johnnie bag”! The heat index that day was 99! This incident was documented.

When you encounter incidents such as this, it is customary for conscious prisoners to utilize the TDCJ Offender Grievance Program in order to resolve such complaints. Eastham’s Grievance Department has established a history of not processing grievances properly, going as far as hiding grievances, refusing to investigate thoroughly or conspiring with TDCJ employees to retaliate harshly against grievance filers so as to dissuade us from utilizing this corrupt vehicle for review.

It is worth mentioning that Eastham Unit Grievance Investigator Terri Hall was fired in January 2018, and her supervisor, Delores Washington, was removed by the agency, because they engaged in activities which totally destroyed the integrity of the grievance process and sabotaged our access to the courts.

Delores Washington was a long-time TDCJ employee who knew better, but she had been seduced by the younger Terri Hall into engaging in nefarious behavior which enabled the willful neglect and abuse of prisoners at the Eastham Unit.

Eastham’s Grievance Department has established a history of not processing grievances properly, going as far as hiding grievances, refusing to investigate thoroughly or conspiring with TDCJ employees to retaliate harshly against grievance filers so as to dissuade us from utilizing this corrupt vehicle for review.

What we are dealing with at Eastham Unit is a corrupt culture. A culture which I falsely thought was changing, but the reality is that it is more entrenched than ever and getting progressively worse as I write this piece. Allow me to illustrate a case in point.

Blatant deliberate indifference

On Friday, June 1, 2018, on E-Line at the Eastham Ad-Seg Unit, the inside temperature had fluctuated between 96 and 100 degrees. My neighbor, Eric Munoz, TDCJ #1996614, had been complaining to me about headaches, dizziness and nausea all day. I am housed in E-1-15 and Eric lives in E-1-16; we talk every day and get along well.

One of our main complaints here at Eastham has been the absolute refusal of the food service departments to provide us with cold water and ice. The problem has been especially bad during the afternoon shift, 2 p.m.-10 p.m. The correctional officer working E-Line on the afternoon of June 1 was Lacilynn Washington – remember that name. By 7:30 p.m., no ice or cold water had been provided to prisoners housed on E-Line – this is a regular occurrence.

Cold water and ice is the number one mitigation measure that TDCJ claims to make available to prisoners housed in their super-hot facilities. In fact, cold water and ice is the only heat mitigation measure available to Ad-Seg prisoners at Eastham, yet they refuse us access to that!

One of our main complaints here at Eastham has been the absolute refusal of the food service departments to provide us with cold water and ice.

And now TDCJ has brought in new grievance investigators at Eastham, Carrie L. Whatley and Deborah A. Phillips. They are performing horribly. They are boldly lying in their responses to our Step 1 grievances, stating that there is no evidence to substantiate our claims that ice and cold water are not being provided continuously.

Eastham Unit has state-of-the-art Panasonic network surveillance cameras. Somebody is lying, and I can prove it if I can get access to the surveillance camera footage.

At 7:45 p.m. on Friday, June 1, 2018, Shift Supervisor Sgt. Michael A. Manning conducted his “security rounds” on E-Line. My neighbor, Eric Munoz, told the sergeant about his headaches and dizziness. He informed the sergeant about the fact that no cold water with ice had been made available on this extremely hot day on his shift.

After Sgt. Manning spoke with Mr. Munoz, I spoke with him and asked if he would ensure that Muslim prisoners were provided with ice and cold water when we break our fast, which would be about 8:15 p.m. that day. I quoted policy AD-10.64 (Rev 8), and Sgt. Manning got on his radio in order to contact the officer who was passing out cold water that evening, Correctional Officer Miri K Duhon.

At approximately 8:00 p.m., Sgt. Manning left E-Line.

The entire time Sgt Manning was on E-Line, officer Lacilynn Washington sat on her stool, neglecting her obligation to carry out her required welfare checks. Remember, they have surveillance cameras here.

Lacilynn Washington is in her early 20s and is a third-generation TDCJ officer. Her grandfather, grandmother and father all work or worked for TDCJ.

Lacilynn Washington is a white woman – the name Washington is kind of rare of white folks nowadays. How much do you want to bet that former Grievance Supervisor Delores Washington is related to Lacilynn? Cronyism, nepotism, and obstruction of justice tactics are the hallmarks of the prison agency TDCJ.

At approximately 8:15 p.m., CO Duhon, the officer passing out cold water, showed up at E-Line’s front door. CO Washington waved her off!

At this time, my neighbor, Eric Munoz, said, “Malik, man, I don’t feel good – man, I need some help, man.” I heard a thud. I began to yell for help – other prisoners began to bang and yell loudly.

Cronyism, nepotism, and obstruction of justice tactics are the hallmarks of the prison agency TDCJ.

CO Washington didn’t budge. Now, remember, this is on 1-Row, and all she had to do is walk down the row to see what was going on.

At 8:45 p.m., Officer Duhon was finally let on the block to serve cold water, for the first time all afternoon. I personally screamed at Duhon, saying, “Ms. Duhon, we got a man down here! We need help!”

Ms. Duhon had started serving cold water on 3-Row. When she arrived at my neighbor’s cell, she was visibly shaken to see Eric Munoz passed out on the floor.

Duhon called CO Washington to Eric’s cell, and told her, “Call for help!” At 9:00 p.m., three supervisors showed up at Eric’s cell – Sgt. Curtis Runels, Sgt. Berta L Harris, and Lt. Michael S Brown.

They had Eric’s door opened, cuffed him, and helped him into a wheelchair. Eric was taken to the medical department, where he spoke to a physician via video link. One of the main things the physician admonished TDCJ officers about was their failure to make cold water and ice available to prisoners.

However, the unethical Eastham Grievance Department continues to state, “There is no evidence to substantiate your claims – no further action warranted.” That’s their “go to” response to every grievance we file.

What really added insult to injury here was that CO Lacilynn Washington had the nerve to write disciplinary cases for creating a disturbance against prisoners who banged in order to get help for Eric Munoz!

What is really crazy is that CO Washington wrote an incident report against Eric Munoz, claiming that not only was he banging and creating a disturbance while unconscious, but that he used profane and vulgar statements against her!

The unethical Eastham Grievance Department continues to state, “There is no evidence to substantiate your claims – no further action warranted.” That’s their “go to” response to every grievance we file.

When Sgt. Douglas Skaggs read these allegations against Eric, I immediately spoke up and directed Sgt. Skaggs to the surveillance camera digital footage, which would clearly show CO Washington never got up off her behind to investigate the problem.

This is a classic example of why prisoners die of heat stroke inside Texas prisons and why we continue to plead for the Texas Legislature to create an independent oversight committee – a committee consisting of individuals with no historical ties to this unscrupulous and corrupt establishment.

In closing, I would like to state that TDCJ refuses to acknowledge the risks placed on prisoners who take medications or have conditions which compromise their body’s ability to cool itself. It is as if the Pack Unit lawsuit never happened.

I keep hearing Mavis Staples and the Staple Singers singing loudly: “Let’s Do It Again!” Litigation is the only thing these oppressors understand.

In closing, I would like to state that TDCJ refuses to acknowledge the risks placed on prisoners who take medications or have conditions which compromise their body’s ability to cool itself. It is as if the Pack Unit lawsuit never happened.

In the Pack Unit lawsuit, the plaintiffs had medical experts on their team. One was Dr. Michael McGeehin, an epidemiologist and former director of the Division of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Allow me to quote Dr. McGeehin:

“If people in a hot environment were experiencing symptoms like dizziness, sweating, and headaches,” Dr. McGeehin testified, “every public health person I know would be alarmed.” He explained: “If you are saying these people are exposed to these temperatures and they are experiencing symptoms in the normal flow of symptoms that lead to heat exhaustion and heatstroke and death or impacting on other systems that may already be compromised, like their cardiovascular or respiratory system, of course that’s alarming.” (His testimony is quoted in the Judge Ellison order cited above.)

There is no accountability here at the Eastham Unit – that must change now! Will you help me make that change?

Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win, All Power to the People!

Keith “Malik” Washington is co-founder and chief spokesperson for the End Prison Slavery in Texas Movement, a proud member of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, an activist in the Fight Toxic Prisons campaign and deputy chairman of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party Prison Chapter. Read Malik’s work at ComradeMalik.com. Send our brother some love and light: Keith “Malik” Washington, 1487958, McConnell Unit, 3001 South Emily Drive, Beeville, TX 78102.

Postscript

One of the reasons that officers at the Eastham Unit feel comfortable in violating the human rights of the prisoners in their care is that they have had the backing of high-ranking administrators.

Senior Warden Billy Lewis, Major James Kent, Major Blake Norman and Assistant Wardens Bruce Johnson & Kenneth Hutto are well aware that the conditions at Eastham pose an extreme risk to the health and lives of prisoners.

However, the culture of deliberate indifference starts at the top. There are officers who have complained about the deadly extreme heat, and they requested to be allowed to purchase special carriers which store ice and cold water.

Eastham has no way to provide ice for prisoners and guards. Senior Warden Billy Lewis shot down the request! He lounges in an office with cold air conditioning while prison guards and prisoners suffer in this inhumane setting.

The culture of deliberate indifference starts at the top.

Right as we speak, prisoners at the Eastham Unit are preparing to file another class action lawsuit which challenges the deadly heat and the toxic water.

Litigation and activism are the only ways to change these conditions inside Texas prisons. The state of Texas has absolutely no desire to recognize our humanity, so we must band together and make our voices heard in federal courthouses across the Lone Star State. Regardless of what anyone thinks, prison lives matter!

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