Alabama prisoner ‘baked to death’ by malfunctioning heater, lawsuit alleges

Published 8:40 pm Thursday, December 15, 2022

A federal lawsuit against Alabama corrections officials charges that an inmate “baked to death” in an overheated prison cell two winters ago.

Thomas Lee Rutledge died of hyperthermia on Dec. 7, 2020, at William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer. Rutledge had an internal temperature of 109 degrees when he was found unresponsive in the mental health cell, according to the lawsuit which was filed by the man’s sister and names prison staff, wardens and contractors as defendants.

Rutledge “was literally baked to death in his cell by excessive heat generated by the prison’s heating system,” according to an amended complaint filed Nov. 30. The lawsuit contends that prison staff knew of problems with the heating system in the mental health unit before his death.

The Alabama Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

The weather on the day Rutledge died was mild with outdoor highs in the mid-40s Fahrenheit and a low of around 30, according to the lawsuit.

“He was housed on a mental health ward, where inmates were confined to their cells around the clock, including eating and bathing in their cells. His death was the direct result of the deliberate indifference or malice of the prison officials, corrections officers, and maintenance personnel at Donaldson, and of the negligence and/or wantonness of the contractor entities,” the lawsuit stated.

It added that an investigator who was on the ward that evening after Rutledge’s death commented in a recorded interview that when he opened a tray door to speak with another inmate, it was “hotter than three hells” and felt like “when you (are) getting something out of the oven and it hits your face.”

The U.S. Department of Justice has an ongoing lawsuit against the state over prison conditions and mentioned the hyperthermia death in a court filing last year as an example of the “serious risks posed by dangerous conditions at Alabama’s prisons for men.”

While Alabama has acknowledged challenges in its prison system, it disputes the Justice Department’s claim that conditions are unconstitutional. The DOJ’s lawsuit is expected to go to trial in 2024.