Jason Clark

The UT System and the state of Texas are in hot water over the deaths of four inmates in state prisons.

The UT Medical Branch Galveston and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice were sued earlier this month over the deaths of four inmates caused by heat-related illnesses. Officials claim UT is liable because health professionals failed to inform the state that the prisoners suffered from medical conditions that made it unsafe for them to live in heated temperatures. The UT System provides health care for roughly 125,000, or nearly 80 percent, of the state’s inmates.

According to the lawsuits, inmates Kenneth Wayne James, Douglas Hudson, Rodney Adams and Robert Webb had medical conditions or were on prescribed medication that made them extremely prone to heat-related illnesses

Austin-area lawyer Jeff Edwards and Scott Medlock, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, are also slamming the state for the facilities the inmates were held in. The attorneys claim the lack of air conditioning in the state prisons where the inmates were held violated their constitional right to freedom from cruelty and unusual punishment. 

Jason Clark, a spokesman for TDCJ, said the department does not comment on pending litigation, but it works to ensure the safety of inmates and correctional officers during the summer months. 

Medlock and Scott claim that temperatures can exceed 100 degrees in state prisons, even at night. State officials say many Texas prisons were built in the 80s and 90s, before air conditioning units were commonly installed. 

“It’s one thing for people to be extremely uncomfortable,” Medlock said. “But when people are dying, that’s a different story. This is like if they were to build a prison in Alaska and not put any heat in the middle of winter. These conditions are deadly.”

Texas’ 154,000 prisoners are housed in 111 facilities, which are located in remote rural areas, UT officials said. UT’s Correctional Managed Care Unit is responsbile for providing a range of health care services, from dental service to hospice care for the inmates, officials said.

Clark said the department takes precautions to help reduce heat-related illnesses, such as training staff to identify and treat inmates and restricting activity during the hottest parts of the day. Clark said correctional officers and much of the unit staff work in the same conditions as the offenders. 

Medlock said this is not enough. He said it is unlikely that a guilty verdict would impede UT medical’s role as healthcare provider to the large majority of Texas inmates. 

“I think we have leaders who pride themselves on being tough on crime and that leads to making bad decisions about the conditions that we house people in,” Medlock said. “If you’re going to lock people up like that, you have to make sure they’re going to come out the other side safely.”

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

HOUSTON — Convicted polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs was moved Tuesday to his new permanent home, an East Texas prison, to begin serving his life sentence for sexually assaulting one of his child brides at a West Texas compound built and occupied by members of his Mormon fundamentalist church.

 

Jeffs, 55, was taken from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Byrd Unit in Huntsville, where new inmates undergo physical and mental examinations, to the Powledge Unit outside Palestine, about 100 miles southeast of Dallas. He was taken to the Huntsville prison two weeks ago after a San Angelo jury decided he should spend life in prison for sexual assault. His victim was among 24 underage wives who prosecutors said Jeffs collected.

 

He also received the maximum 20-year punishment on a separate child sex conviction.

 

The punishment was the harshest possible. The head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints isn’t eligible for parole until he is at least 100 years old.

 

Prison agency spokesman Jason Clark said Jeffs will be in protective custody, which is among the most restrictive forms of imprisonment in Texas. He’ll be alone in his cell daily, not be involved in any work programs and be out of the cell only for recreation alone and to shower.

 

Jeffs, now Texas inmate No. 01726705, is among only 85 inmates in the 156,000-prisoner Texas corrections system to be assigned protective custody, “the ultimate protection to offenders,” Clark said. Protective custody inmates are normally isolated because of serious, direct or proven threats to their safety.

 

On weekends, Jeffs will be allowed to see visitors from a list of 10 people.

 

“He will have contact visits but not with anyone under the age of 17,” Clark said. The age limit is a provision of his status as a convicted sex offender.

 

He’ll also be allowed to make phone calls to those on his visitors’ list who have registered with the Texas prison phone system provider. His calls, however, are limited to 15 minutes and he can’t exceed 240 minutes a month. The calls are recorded.

 

Clark said Jeffs’ protective custody status will be reviewed every six months by a classification committee.

 

Former church members have said Jeffs likely would continue to lead his Utah-based church from inside the Powledge Unit and that his followers likely still revere him as a prophet despite the considerable evidence presented at his trial showing that he apparently had sex with girls as young as 12.

 

During his trial, prosecutors used DNA evidence to show Jeffs fathered a child with the 15-year-old and played an audio recording of what they said was him sexually assaulting the 12-year-old.

 

The basic principles of Jeffs’ FLDS are rooted in polygamy, a legacy of early Mormon church teachings that held plural marriage brought exaltation in heaven. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the mainstream Mormon church, abandoned the practice in 1890 as a condition of Utah’s statehood and excommunicates members who engage in the practice.

Printed on Wednesday, August 24, 2011 as: Texas polygamist convicted of sexual assault.