Montgomery, AL — Tommy Lee Rutledge, 44, spent the last moments of his life shoving his face as close as he could to the window of his cell gasping for cooler air. Heat was being pumped into his prison cell in the mental health ward and he had no way to escape it, causing his body temp to skyrocket to 109, killing him from hypothermia.
The Alabama Department of Corrections has refused to answer any questions as to why Rutledge’s cell was so hot given the fact that on the night he died, the outside temperature was 31 degrees. They cited an “ongoing investigation” as their reason for silence.
According to Rutledge’s autopsy, he 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 cooler air.
Beth Shelburne, a freelance journalist obtained the autopsy report, otherwise the details of Rutledge’s death may have never seen the light of day.
According to the Montgomery Advertiser, officials have refused to answer any question about 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 a statement.
Activists are pointing out how Rutledge’s death was entirely avoidable and the culture inside Alabama prisons is callous and reckless.
“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,” Charlotte Morrison, senior attorney for the Equal Justice Initiative, said.
The Equal Justice Initiative spoke with an investigator with the corrections department who “told the medical examiner’s office that, once the heat is turned on, the temperature in each cell cannot be adjusted, so Mr. Rutledge had no way to regulate the temperature in his cell. Men incarcerated on the mental health ward never leave their cells, the investigator said; they eat and bathe in their cells.”
Deadly heat aside, the conditions in which these people live are horrifying enough. Imagine being in a cage — forever. In what scenario is it acceptable to lock someone in a solitary confinement for life and then force them to suffer a prolonged and inhumane death by heating up their cell? Sure, Rutledge committed crimes, but free societies are free because we avoid cruel and unusual punishment.
What’s more, adding to the terrible nature of Rutledge’s death is that he was about to be eligible for parole. According to EJI, “Mr. Rutledge was initially sentenced to life in prison without parole for a crime that happened when he was 17. EJI challenged the constitutionality of such sentences for children and in 2012 won a ban on mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children at the Supreme Court. EJI lawyers successfully represented Mr. Rutledge in resentencing proceedings and he was given a new sentence. He would have been eligible for parole in three years.”
The conditions inside Alabama prisons are so terrible that two days after Rutledge’s death, the Department of Justice filed an unprecedented civil rights complaint against the State of Alabama alleging that the state’s indifference to the systemic problems in Alabama’s prisons for men violates the Constitution, according to EJI.
Hopefully, this complaint leads to radical change in the prison system as these scenarios are far more common than just Rutledge. Just one state over, Darren Rainey, a schizophrenic man serving time in prison for cocaine possession — was locked in scalding hot shower — while four guards stood just outside for two full hours, laughing sadistically at his agonizing pain. He was left in the shower for so long that his skin literally peeled off and he died.
Neither John Fan Fan, Cornelius Thompson, Ronald Clarke, nor Edwina Williams — the officers at Florida’s Dade Correctional Institution, who forced the man into the 180-degree shower as a demented punishment — were ever charged, and three of them are still cops.