135 people have died in Texas prisons since June 1; Families demand answers

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — As Tona Naranjo raised a faint candle toward the Governor’s Mansion, she remembered the light of her life now extinguished.

Gathered in prayerful protest on the steps of the mansion on Friday night, she mourned with other families who have lost loved ones inside the criminal justice system.

Her son, Jon Anthony Southwards, died at 36 years old on June 28 inside the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Estelle Unit. He was found unresponsive in his cell and later pronounced dead. His cause of death is still unknown, pending autopsy results from a medical examiner.

Naranjo is seeking answers from TDCJ regarding the circumstances of her son’s sudden death.

“That little boy taught me what unconditional love was all about. He taught me what passion was. He taught me what it was like to be a sovereign servant,” she told a crowd of families and inmate advocates Friday. “A judge sentenced Jon Anthony to 20 years. The TDCJ Estelle Unit sentenced Jon Anthony to death.”

Southards is one of at least 202 people who have died while incarcerated inside Texas correctional facilities since June 1.

Nexstar analyzed the 135 reports involving deaths in TDCJ prisons, the majority of which are not air-conditioned, amid concerns that this summer’s extreme heat may be exacerbating or triggering medical issues.

Custodial death reports from the Texas Attorney General’s Office show at least 51 people appear to have died after a sudden and unforeseen medical distress in the last two and half months.

Of those 51 deaths, 11 died of cardiac arrest or heart failure. In 38 cases, the cause of death is unknown or pending autopsy results.

35 people were pronounced dead after TDCJ staff found them unresponsive in their cells. Of those inmates, eight were determined to have died of cardiac arrest, one of cardiogenic shock, and the 27 others have “pending” or “unknown” causes of death.

20 of those 35 people were under 50 years old. 14 were under 40 years old.

The youngest deceased inmate was 23-year-old Peyton Pendley. He was found unresponsive in his cell at TDCJ’s Beto Unit on July 12 and was later pronounced deceased at a hospital.

The average age of these deceased inmates is 51 years old.

TDCJ has not documented any deaths as heat-related since 2012.

“Inmates and staff found in medical distress immediately receive medical attention via EMS or the infirmary,” TDCJ spokesperson Amanda Hernandez told Nexstar. “TDCJ does not determine cause of death, this is determined by an independent medical examiner. Based on this, TDCJ has not had a heat-related death this year.”

Hernandez said TDCJ recorded 110 deaths in June and July of this year, out of a population of 128,777. For comparison, last year saw 99 deaths in the same months out of a population of 121,102, she said.

Experts believe TDCJ is undercounting heat-related deaths.

“On its face, that doesn’t make sense,” said Michele Deitch, who directs the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs and co-chairs the American Bar Association’s Subcommittee on Correctional Oversight. “We can see how deaths spike during the summer months. TDCJ may not have proof that these were heat-related deaths, but on its face, it doesn’t make sense to say that they are not related.”

Deitch cited one study that found approximately 13 percent of deaths in Texas prisons during warm months between 2001 and 2019 may be attributable to extreme heat. The study concluded that air conditioning for Texas prisons “may be an important part of protecting the health of one of our most vulnerable populations.”

“In fairness, some of these may be drug-related deaths. And we have to at least acknowledge that possibility,” Deitch said. “But common sense tells us that when the heat is this extreme, and you’ve got people without prior medical conditions dying that young in their cells, there may well be a connection to the heat.”

Below is the list of TDCJ deaths that occurred in prison facilities since June 1. This list excludes suicides, homicides, and natural illnesses. It also excludes deaths that occurred inside air-conditioned units or in the prison system’s hospitals.

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