MONTGOMERY, Ala. – An Alabama man incarcerated in a prison mental health ward overheated and died in December after temperatures inside his cell topped 101 degrees Fahrenheit.
Tommy Lee Rutledge was found unresponsive in Donaldson prison on the night of Dec. 7, sitting near the window of his single-occupant cell with his head “facing out the window,” in an apparent attempt to breathe cool air, according to his autopsy.
The Jefferson County coroner’s office on Thursday confirmed Rutledge, 44, died of hyperthermia after his core body temperature reached 109 degrees. The coroner’s autopsy report was first obtained by Beth Shelburne, a freelance journalist.
It is unclear how temperatures inside the Donaldson prison cell skyrocketed past 100 degrees on a winter night with a low of 31 degrees, according to the National Weather Service data. The Alabama Department of Corrections declined to answer any specific questions, citing an “ongoing” investigation into the matter eight weeks after Rutledge’s death.
Questions to the Alabama Department of Corrections included whether any other prisoners suffered heat-related illnesses at the same prison, what caused the extreme temperatures and whether any disciplinary actions have been considered for staff.
“As the Alabama Department of Corrections’ investigation into the death of Tommy Lee Rutledge is ongoing, we cannot provide details at this time. More information will be available upon the conclusion of our investigation,” Samantha Rose, an ADOC spokesperson, said in an emailed statement.
Charlotte Morrison, senior attorney for the Equal Justice Initiative, said the conditions that led to his death were “avoidable.”
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“Confining a mentally ill prisoner in an over-heated isolation cell until they suffer a prolonged and inhumane death is a tragic consequence of the culture of indifference by state officials concerning Alabama’s prisons,” Morrison said.
EJI lawyers represented Rutledge in a 2014 petition to relieve his life without parole sentence. Rutledge was convicted and received a life without parole sentence for murder in 1993 at age 17. The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled such sentences for minors were unconstitutional, and Rutledge’s petition was approved. He would have been eligible for parole in three years.
Rutledge’s death is not the first heat-related fatality inside Alabama prison walls.
In 2010, the mother of Farron Barksdale was awarded a $750,000 lawsuit judgment against the then-Kilby prison warden and prison mental health services after Barksdale died from hyperthermia days after he was transferred to prison. The lawsuit alleged Barksdale was given an “unusually large dose” of mental health medication that made it difficult for his body to regulate temperature, a lethal combination in an uncooled prison cell in August 2007. Prison staff failed to properly monitor Barksdale, the lawsuit alleged.
Rutledge’s autopsy indicates a fellow prisoner was the last person to see him alive, and the first person to find him unresponsive on Dec. 7.
A prisoner “runner,” an inmate typically allowed freer movement within prison dorms, saw Rutledge alive in his cell around 6 p.m. Dec. 7, an ADOC Intelligence and Investigations investigator told the medical examiner’s office.
The same prisoner saw Rutledge unresponsive around 8 p.m. and alerted medical staff. Rutledge was transferred to the prison infirmary, where he was pronounced dead at 9:13 p.m., according to the autopsy.
Prisoners are unable to adjust the temperature in their cells, and the I&I officer told the medical examiner that prisoners in Rutledge’s mental health ward eat and bathe in their cells.
The U.S. Department of Justice has sued Alabama and the state Department of Corrections, alleging the state continues to violate the constitutional rights of the men in their custody.
The lawsuit is an escalation of a years-long federal probe into Alabama’s men’s prisons that first resulted in a scathing 2019 report outlining unsafe and unsanitary living conditions, in addition to rampant drug abuse and violence among its prison populations. In July, the DOJ released additional findings, revealing a systemic culture of excessive force and violence used by prison staff against prisoners. The report outlined a culture of impunity and shoddy accountability within the Alabama Department of Corrections, which federal investigators said failed to fully cooperate with its investigation into violent incidents.
Morrison said Alabama’s “failure to respond” urgently to its prison crisis is “immoral.”
“Each month we receive hundreds of calls and letters from prisoners and their families about life threatening conditions in state prisons,” Morrison said. “They call us after their calls to the warden and prison leadership go unanswered. State officials frequently acknowledge problems but have failed to respond with the urgency and critical attention to management and leadership that is desperately needed. As a result people like Tommy Rutledge are killed. This is one of many tragedies playing out in Alabama’s prisons daily and the state’s failure to respond is not only unconstitutional but it is immoral.”
Follow Melissa Brown at @itsmelissabrown