How one reporter uncovered possible heat-related deaths in Texas prisons


Jolie McCullough
Jolie McCullough. Photo courtesy of Texas Tribune

The global summer heat wave didn’t spare the U.S., with the Southwest especially experiencing record-high temperatures. In Texas, people who may be at a higher risk of developing heat-related illnesses include the more than 100,000 inmates serving time in state prisons. 

According to former Texas Tribune criminal justice reporter Jolie McCullough, more than two-thirds of state penitentiaries don’t have air conditioning in the majority of living sections. McCullough has been drawing attention to that issue for six years, and she recently talked about her data-gathering and sourcing strategies with the Association of Health Care Journalists. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

How did you find sources David Segovia and Tona Southards and the other family members of prisoners who have died, presumably or potentially of heat-related causes?

I do have a pretty good source base of people inside prisons. I have a pretty good source base of family members, especially.

For specific people, there are Facebook advocacy groups that are always — especially on a beat — really good ways to find real people. Maybe not the advocates themselves, but they’ve obviously been in touch with the people who are most affected by any issue.

You mentioned that you have a good source base in prisons. Does that include inmates and staff? 

I get a lot of prison mail. Unfortunately, in our state, I am not allowed to be on call lists. So, to talk to someone aside from mail, I have to visit them. And a lot of prisoners don’t really want the attention that brings, that kind of very obvious “I’m talking to the press” attention.

My stories will get sent to some prisons, and they pass them around. And so my name gets out that way, and then people will reach out from there, if not through their loved ones. 

Have you been able to cultivate sources inside that are prison employees? 

Not as much as I would love because there are 100 prisons. Again, my biggest thing is you write stories to get stories. So, the more I write about prisons, the more people think to reach out to me when they have something that’s concerning them, where they work or where they are housed. 

How did you get the details about the heat-related conditions inside the prison? 

I have toured a few prisons during the summers. A lot of that I’m just pulling from my own knowledge. I can’t tell you how many countless prisoners have told me about what they try to do to mitigate the heat on their own. 

For the analysis that you did for the story in June, how did you narrow down the dates? 

Based on temperature. When we started to get this really big heat wave in Texas around June 10 to 15, I started looking and I started adding up all of those [deaths]. As I looked at that death, I also checked the temperature that day at that prison. And if it was over 100 degrees heat index [that day], I marked it as one of the [deaths] that could possibly be heat-related.

What have you learned, if anything, from the research that is being done in this country about heat-related deaths in prisons?

There was a study that came out last year. It was pretty new. 

Obviously, we have a lot of studies on heat deaths in the general public. It’s a big issue with people who are homeless or people who may be elderly who don’t have air conditioning in their houses. One of the women who was part of it, she’s actually also an advocate for this group that’s trying to push for air conditioning in Texas prisons. 

What we know overall in any case, throughout the entire population, is that heat-related deaths are often undercounted. 

What are some of the stories that you still want to work on about this issue? 

I’m continuing to monitor deaths as they come up. I’m continuing to try to report inside prisons and with loved ones, just to get more information beyond these reports. And I’m also looking at and then talking to officers, not just the prisoners, but the people who are working in these conditions. Texas prisons are severely understaffed. And this is often one of the reasons that they argue [about] who would want to work in this environment.

What else do you suggest that reporters do? What reports should they be looking for? 

I’ve just been looking at academic studies, and there’s been more and more that are coming out about heat, not necessarily for prisons, but just in general. The best thing I can say is to just use that knowledge, as you’re learning, to keep a very skeptical eye on what’s being told by state officials. 

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Margarita Martín-Hidalgo Birnbaum

Margarita Birnbaum is AHCJ’s health beat leader on health equity and an independent journalist who has covered health disparities. Fluent in English and Spanish, Birnbaum is also an interpreter and translator.