Questions have arisen after an inmate died in an Alabama mental health cell with a body temperature of nearly 110 degrees in late 2020.
Tommy Lee Rutledge, 44, was found unresponsive in the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility on Dec. 7, as was confirmed by Bill Yates, the chief deputy coroner at the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office.
Yates told Oxygen.com by email on Friday that Rutledge died of hyperthermia.
“During our investigation, it was found that the decedent’s body core temperature at the time he was pronounced was 109 degrees Fahrenheit,” he wrote. "The decedent was found in his cell sitting near the window of his cell with his head/face facing out the window."
The Montgomery Advertiser reported Rutledge was facing the window of his single-occupant cell to try to suck in fresh air. His cell had reportedly reached temperatures of up to 101 degrees before he died, despite it being about 30 degrees outside, the Advertiser reports.
The Alabama Department of Corrections has not immediately responded to Oxygen.com’s request for comment. They told the Advertiser that they can’t answer questions, citing an "ongoing" investigation.
Rutledge was reportedly being held in a mental health cell, where he also ate and bathed.
"Mr. Rutledge, who struggled with serious mental illness, spent most of his incarceration in solitary confinement," the Equal Justice Initiative noted in a statement.
Prisoners are unable to adjust the temperature of individual cells.
"Confining a mentally ill prisoner in an overheated 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, told the Advertiser.
Morrison called the incident “avoidable.”
Lawyers from the Equal Justice Initiative successfully filed a petition in 2014 in an effort to relieve Rutledge’s sentence of life without parole. In 1995, when he was 17, Rutledge was convicted on capital murder for the December 1993 shooting deaths of Kevin Edwards and Radshaw Whitman, AL.com reports. He initially received life without parole, but the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled such sentences unconstitutional for minors. He was re-sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 2017 and would have been eligible for a parole hearing in just three years.
Just two days after Rutledge's death, the U.S. Department of Justice sued both Alabama and the state Department of Corrections, claiming that they have violated and continue to violate inmates’ constitutional rights. The department alleged that the state “fails to provide safe and sanitary conditions,” according to a DOJ press release.
The DOJ states the lawsuit “is the result of a multi-year investigation into allegations of constitutional violations within Alabama’s prisons for men.”
“State officials frequently acknowledge problems but have failed to respond with the urgency and critical attention to management and leadership that is desperately needed,” Morrison told the Advertiser. “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."
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