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Alabama inmate ‘literally baked to death’ in overheated prison cell, says lawsuit

Thomas Lee Rutledge, 44, died alone in an Alabama prison cell two years ago, sitting with his face pressed to his window, trying to breathe in cold air, as the heat piped into the mental health unit rose to an extreme level, and according to a federal lawsuit, “he was literally baked to death in his cell.”

The federal lawsuit over Rutledge’s death alleges prison guards did nothing the night of his death, despite knowing of the extreme heat in the prisoners’ cells. Lawyers argue officials at William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility near Birmingham also knew the heating system in the mental health dorm, the T-unit, was broken, they knew other men had died from extreme heat due to a broken heater, and still left the men, many on psychotropic medications that made them especially vulnerable to heat, to “bake” in their cells.

According to an updated complaint filed in U.S. District Court two weeks ago, corrections investigator Clark Hopper was on the T unit the night Rutledge died from hyperthermia. Hopper opened another inmate’s tray door to speak with him, and, in a recorded interview, the investigator recalled it was like “opening an oven and when you (are) getting something out of the oven it hits your face.” He said: “When he dropped his (meal door), it was, it was just, pardon the language, but it was hotter than three hells when it dropped.”

The updated complaint spends much of its 58-pages breaking down how the heating system failed and claiming there were many ways in which the problem was ignored, overlooked, made worse or mismanaged by numerous parties, from guards to prison officials to private contractors.

Alabama Department of Corrections declined to comment for this story due to pending litigation.

The suit says Rutledge was found on December 7, 2020, with a body temperature of 109 degrees, “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,” according to an autopsy which deemed his death an accident. Rutledge’s attorneys argue it was not an accident.

The lawsuit was first filed in federal court on Feb. 21, 2021, on behalf of Rutledge’s estate and his sister LaVentra Rutledge. It alleges cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment and seeks damages. The case is before Judge R. David Proctor in Alabama’s Northern District.

Judge Proctor is also hearing a case brought by the U.S. Department of Justice against Alabama for unsafe conditions throughout the men’s prisons.

“We are just trying to uncover the truth of what happened that resulted in Mr. Rutledge suffering such a horrible death,” said Jon Goldfarb an attorney who represents Rutledge’s estate.

Not the first death

Prison wardens and other officials knew of the risk to inmates, the lawsuit alleges, because at least two other prisoners died from the heat on the T-unit in recent years.

According to the lawsuit, on December 8 of 2019, Deborah Cook, director of Mental Health Services at Donaldson, sent an email reporting an inmate’s death from similar circumstances. The inmate, also on psychotropic medication, had an initial core temperature of 109.7 and a temperature of 108.1 about 40 minutes after dying.

“Extremely high post-mortem temperature is recognized as a sign of a neuroleptic syndrome which could have led to his death. The (health services) has contacted the institution to check the heat temperature of the cells in the T unit. It has been several years ago, but we had a major dysfunction of the boiler at Donaldson in T housing dorm, which lead to a fatal case.”

A coroner’s report on Rutledge’s death stated the men in the T-unit never leave their cells, according to the lawsuit. They eat and shower in their rooms. The cells have heating vents, but there is no way to control them, and according to the suit, in the weekend leading up to Rutledge’s death, inmates stuffed their clothes into the vents to minimize the hot air.

The lawsuit alleges on the weekend of December 5, and 6, prisoners on the T-unit complained about the hot temperatures. On the night of December 7, a moderate day, according to the lawsuit, with outdoor highs in the mid-40′s and a low of about 30 degrees, the system’s heating loop exceeded 130 degrees.

“Human beings cannot survive without remedial measures in temperatures above 101-104 for extended periods of time,” the complaint states.

Psychotropic medications, which many of the men on the T-unit were on, impair the body’s ability to regulate its temperature.

According to the lawsuit, at 8:20 p.m. that evening, an inmate alerted an officer that Rutledge was unresponsive in his cell. Between 8:28 p.m. and 8:57 p.m. medical staff attempted CPR. By 9:10 pm an ambulance arrived, and minutes later Rutledge was declared dead.

At 9:40 pm, a chaplain called his mother to tell her.

More than half his life in prison

Thomas Lee Rutledge spent over half his life in an Alabama prison for a double murder he committed as a juvenile in 1993. A paranoid schizophrenic, Rutledge at age 17 shot two young men to death in the early morning hours after a small gathering of young men smoked marijuana together at the house of one of their grandmothers.

Originally, he was sentenced to life without parole. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that that inmates serving life without parole for murders committed when they were juveniles should be resentenced with a chance at parole. Rutledge was resentenced in 2017.

He was slated for release in 2024 when he hoped to move to Alaska with his mother.

But the suit alleges when the prison updated its air conditioning system, it fixed the surrounding units’ heat to be controlled remotely and the T-unit boiler system wasn’t updated. The suit contends contractors damaged it further during renovations. Lawyers for Rutledge claim the wardens and officers failed to institute policies requiring officers to take measures to cool inmates, and that the wardens failed to require training.

“Prison officials, including Warden Phyllis Morgan and Warden Kenneth Peters, had long been aware of problems with the boiler that posed a substantial risk of serious harm to incarcerated persons,” the suit says.

Attorneys for the wardens did not respond to a request for comment. “The Correctional Wardens explicitly deny that they violated the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in any respect whatsoever,” they stated in their answer to the complaint.

The Alabama Department of Corrections, initially named in the suit, has been dropped from the case. The suit still names several other prison employees and several private contractors.

The corrections employees are arguing they are protected by qualified immunity, a claim that has not yet been resolved. A trial date has not been set.

“Living and breathing” checks

The suit also contends guards took no action despite the heat. Officers at Donaldson are responsible for monitoring temperatures in inmates’ cells, according to the complaint.

The staff working the evening of Rutledge’s death did hourly “living and breathing” checks and nightly “security checks” and noted that everything was fine, despite the extreme heat, the suit alleges.

“The excessive heat far in excess of 100 degrees was obvious to officers who conducted living and breathing checks or security checks or who otherwise interacted with inmates in their cells,” the complaint stated.

Officers Christie Sansing, John Rogers, Charles Dean and Geoffrey Griffin, all named as defendants in the case, worked the night of Rutledge’s death. Officers Dean and Griffin helped inmates shower that night, the complaint states, but otherwise took no action to address the deadly heat, the suit alleges.

All four officers denied responsibility for Rutledge’s death in their answers to the lawsuit, and all four claimed immunity from suit.

Officer Rogers did “living and breathing” checks at 4:04 p.m. and 5:05 p.m. and a security check at 4:35 p.m. Officer Dean did a security check at 5:35 p.m. and “living and breathing” checks at 6:05 p.m., 7:05 p.m., and 8:05 p.m. and noted, “all 96 units alive & well and “all 96 units secure.”

Officer Griffin security checks at 6:35 and 7:35 p.m. and reported “all 96 units secure.”

Rutledge was already experiencing life-threatening heat at this point, the lawsuit alleges. At 8:30 p.m. an inmate reported to an officer that Rutledge was not responsive.

According to the lawsuit, the prison’s Psychotropic Medications and Heat Policy states that if temperatures in a cell or housing area rise to 90 degrees, inmates should be moved to a cooler cell or area and the shift commander and health services should be notified. If the inmates are too hot, above 85 degrees, staff should also offer fans, fluids, ice and extra showers.

Piecemeal repairs backfire, lawsuit claims

In 2019 and 2020, the prison added a new heating unit for seven dorms in the same building as the T Unit, says the suit. Temperatures on the new system could be controlled remotely for the seven dorms that got the upgrade, but not for the T Unit, where the mentally ill inmates were held.

The heater for the T Unit had to be controlled in the mechanical control room, according to the complaint. The complaint lists numerous private contractors, arguing mistakes and ill-fated decisions during repairs made it so temperature could not be controlled properly, leaving a continuous flow of hot air in the wintertime in the T unit whenever the system is on, making it impossible to prevent overheating.

In their responses to the lawsuit and in response to calls from, the contractors denied responsibility for the situation.

Plant maintenance supervisor Billy Kennedy, also named as a defendant, was the person managing repairs, the complaint alleges. An attorney for Mr. Kennedy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Kennedy denies that he was deliberately indifferent or acted with malice towards Rutledge,” his answer to the lawsuit stated. “Kennedy also denies that Plaintiff is entitled to damages or relief against him.”

According to the complaint, Kennedy said in a recorded statement to investigator Clark Hopper that the inmates had been complaining about the heat all weekend prior to Rutledge’s death.

Kennedy measured the unit’s temperature on Mondays, and he would have measured it that day, according to the complaint. “Nonetheless, Kennedy failed to shut down the boiler or alert prison officials,” the complaint stated.

Since the lawsuit began, evidence from the boiler room has been destroyed, the complaint alleges. On September 22, 2021, Rutledge’s lawyers requested the boiler logs kept by Kennedy. The department objected and did not release the logs. According to the suit, Kennedy testified those records were destroyed in a flood caused by a burst water pipe.

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