Bessemer, AL

Federal lawsuit alleges that inmate "baked to death" in prison cell

Amy Niu

An ongoing federal wrongful death lawsuit charges that Alabama corrections officers' negligence led to the overheating death of an inmate in 2020.

Thomas Lee Rutledge died of hyperthermia on December 7, 2020, at William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Alabama. The lawsuit, which was filed by Rutledge's estate and his sister LaVerna, states that "he was literally baked to death in his cell."

According to an autopsy report, he was found with a body temperature of 109 degrees Fahrenheit in a cell with a temperature of between 101 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit. With his head positioned outside of the window, he was attempting to breathe in colder air.

Filed on November 30, the amended complaint names prison staff, wardens, and contractors who maintained the facility's heater and boiler systems as defendants in the lawsuit. Rutledge's death, the suit says, was caused by "deliberate indifference and malice" on the part of the defendants.

The suit claims that a new air conditioning unit and controls were installed in 2019 and 2020. However, T Unit, the mental health ward where Rutledge was held was left out of this installation.
(Thomas Lee RutledgePhoto byAlabama Department of Corrections

Lawyers argue that officials at the Donaldson facility were aware that the T Unit's air conditioning system was broken and those other men had died from extreme heat due to the broken AC. Still, men in the mental health ward, many of whom were taking psychotropic medications that impaired the regulation of body temperature, were left in hot cells.

In an ongoing lawsuit against the state of Alabama, the Department of Justice references Rutledge's death as an example of "serious risks posed by dangerous conditions at Alabama's prisons for men." This lawsuit is expected to go to court in 2024.

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