An attorney for the deceased inmate’s estate claims that the corrections officials have destroyed or otherwise “lost” critical evidence.
A federal lawsuit filed against Alabama corrections officials alleges that an inmate “baked to death” in an overheated cell two years ago.
According to The Associated Press, Thomas Lee Rutledge died of hyperthermia on December 7, 2020, while incarcerated at William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, a suburb of Birmingham.
When Rutledge was eventually discovered unresponsive in his cell, he had a body temperature of 109 degrees Fahrenheit.
In their lawsuit, Rutledge’s family members claim that the inmate “was literally baked to death inside his cell by excessive heat generated by the prison’s heating system.”
The complaint asserts that Alabama corrections officials were aware that the heating system at William E. Donaldson was problematic but took inadequate measures to correct it.
The lawsuit observes that Rutledge died in what could have otherwise been characterized as mild winter weather: day-time temperatures were in the mid-40s, with daily lows just below freezing.
“He was housed on a mental health ward, where inmates were confined to their cells around the clock, including eating and bathing in their cells. His death was the direct result of the deliberate indifference or malice of the prison officials, corrections officers, and maintenance personnel at Donaldson, and of the negligence and/or wantonness of the contractor entities,” the lawsuit states.
Attorneys for the Rutledge family noted in the lawsuit that an investigator who had visited the mental health ward on the evening of the inmate’s death had spoken to another prisoner.
When the other prisoner opened his tray door to communicate, the investigator—who was blasted by a wave of hot air—observed that it was “hotter than three hells” inside the ward, and that the heat felt like “when you [are] getting something out of the oven and it hits your face.”
Rutledge was eventually discovered “in his cell sitting near the window of his cell with his head/face out the window believed attempting to breath/obtain cool/cold air.”
Jon Goldfarb, the attorney representing Rutledge’s estate, said that the inmate’s family simply wants answers.
“We are just trying to uncover the truth of what happened that resulted in Mr. Rutledge suffering such a horrible death,” Goldfarb said.
AlabamaLive notes that Rutledge is neither the first nor the only inmate to have died from excessive temperatures in the same facility.
In 2019, Deborah Cook—the director of Mental Health Services at Donaldson—sent an email reporting another prisoner’s death under similar circumstances.
The inmate, who was taking psychotropic medication, had an internal core temperature of about 109 degrees Fahrenheit and a body temperature of 108.1 Fahrenheit.
Both temperatures, notes AL.com, were recorded more than 40 minutes after the prisoner had already died.
During the time that Rutledge died, numerous other inmates had complained of stifling and perhaps dangerously hot temperatures inside the mental health wing.
“Human beings cannot survive without remedial measures in temperatures above 101-104 for extended periods of time,” the lawsuit states, adding that psychotropic medications impair the body’s natural ability to regulate temperatures.
Attorneys for Rutledge’s family and estate note that the Department of Corrections appears to have either destroyed or lost evidence relating to the inmate’s death. For example, Rutledge’s lawyers requested a copy of the correctional center’s boiler logs, but the agency refused and never released them.
According to the lawsuit, a Department of Corrections officials then testified that the records had been “destroyed” in a flood caused by burst boiler pipes.