DALLAS — The Texas prison system has been called cruel, inhumane and degrading by reform advocates in recent years.
But an ongoing WFAA investigation shows that "deadly" also applies.
Heat-related deaths inside Texas prisons have become so serious that even some United Nations officials are speaking out. The U.N. Convention Against Torture issued a statement last November saying it is "...concerned about reports of inmate deaths occurring as a result of extreme heat exposure ... in prison facilities in ... Texas."
But inmates' families tell WFAA that it is more than a lack of air conditioning and the extreme heat. Some call it an overall "reckless indifference" by state prison officials.
Texas houses approximately 150,000 inmates in 109 facilities. A small percentage of them die each year of "natural causes" – 377 last year and 252 so far this year. "Natural causes" implies a death by illness with no maltreatment.
In July of this year, according to his autopsy, 37-year-old inmate Quintero Jones — who had chronic asthma — complained of a "shortness of breath." According to the pathologist, "en route to medical services he collapsed where the staff performed life saving measures."
But they didn't save his life.
"I think it was a cruel and senseless death," said Alice Jones, Quintero's mother.
The story of her son's suffering was detailed in a letter from a fellow inmate, who says on the morning her son died, Quintero had complained to officers at the McConnell Unit near Beeville that "his asthma was bothering him." The inmate who witnessed the incident claimed a guard had "taken his inhaler" and showed "neglect toward Jones."
Later that day — more than 12 hours after Jones first asked for help — he died of what his autopsy termed "natural causes."
"All day long, locked up in the heat, that's cruel to take his asthma pump and know that's the only way he's got to breathe," said Roy Jones, Quintero's father.
In September, a News 8 investigation uncovered another asthma-related inmate death in which prison guards allegedly ignored the pleas of dying inmate Curtis Garland at the Beto Unit in Tennessee Colony, Texas.
"It took these people 30-plus minutes to get down and help this man out," former inmate Marchello Faulkner told WFAA. "Garland, he laid down and died there in the hallway."
"When I saw your story that night, all that was to me was my father speaking to me all over again telling me, 'Baby don't let this go,'" said Shannon Clark. Her 56-year old father, H. M. Griffin — a blind diabetic on dialysis — died at the Estelle Unit north of Huntsville in January 2013.
According to her father's autopsy report, he was "found unresponsive on the floor of his cell." The cause listed on his autopsy: "sudden cardiac death."
Griffin's family knew his health was frail. But it wasn't until they got letters from inmates that they heard another side of his story.
One of the letters came from an inmate who claimed to have witnessed a guard "clamp his hand around Griffin's throat" and "slam Mr. Griffin to the floor." One month later, Griffin was dead.
According to his autopsy, Griffin went his final three days without his critical dialysis treatment.
"They tried to take his life away from him," Clark said. "How many times can you have your head beat up against the concrete floor? He didn't deserve none of that."
The disturbing tales of mistreatment and neglect come at a time of increasing scrutiny of conditions in Texas prisons. Earlier this year, The University of Texas Law School's Human Rights Clinic published a report called Reckless Indifference: Deadly Heat in Texas Prisons.
The report cites 14 heat-related deaths in Texas prisons since 2007. The chief culprit: Cell blocks without air conditioning where the summertime heat index can reach 120 degrees.
Using the state's official death-in-custody database maintained by the Texas Attorney General's office, WFAA has documented 21 cases of asthma-related deaths among inmates over the past decade. Excessive heat is a known trigger of asthma attacks.
"The Committee Against Torture referred to Texas specifically," said Ariel Dulitzky, director of UT Law's Human Rights Clinic. "The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights expressed its grave concern about the situation in Texas."
In October 2014, Human Rights Clinic staff members testified before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about Texas' heat-related deaths, which have spurred several wrongful death lawsuit statewide.
"Five of the 14 who died spent less than a week in TDCJ custody before dying," testified clinic staffer Cameron Njaa. "Many of these inmates received a death sentence for crimes like drunk driving and theft."
Texas prison officials were invited to testify, but did not attend. They have also declined WFAA's requests for an on-camera interview.
Prison officials issued a statement insisting that inmates receive quality medical care. All inmate deaths, they say, are reviewed by the prison's Office of Inspector General and the Correctional Managed Health Care Committee's Joint Morbidity and Mortality Review team.
"The well-being of offenders is a priority for the agency and its partners who deliver medical services," said Jason Clark, TDCJ spokesman.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice partners with Texas Tech University Health Science Center (TTUHSC) and University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) to provide health care for inmates.
Prison officials also say inmates can buy personal fans, and that ice and water are available to inmates who need it.
But attorney Steven Goeztmann, who represents the families of two inmates who died this summer, said fans and ice are not enough.
"I think a word for it is 'torture,'" Goetzmann said. "It's as torturous as what we've seen, and is outlawed throughout the world — to have someone slowly asphyxiate in Dante's Hell at the bottom level."
For years, state law has required all county jails to be climate-controlled. In 2013, Texas prison officials spent more than $700,000 on new climate-controlled "housing" facilities – but not for prisoners. It was for the prison system's in-house swine farm population.
Prison officials defend the move, saying the cooling capabilities in the buildings are "consistent with any swine operation."
For more information on conditions inside Texas prisons, The Texas Civil Rights Project compiled the report "A Thin Line: The Texas Prison Healthcare Crisis and The Secret Death Penalty."
For policy discussion and analysis of prison conditions in Texas, see the Grits For Breakfast blog.