Texas is on trial after prisoners died from a heat index as high as 150 degrees

In this Aug. 16, 2016 photo, a condemned inmate is led out of his east block cell on death row at San Quentin State Prison. in San Quentin, Calif. Proposition 66, which would shorten the appeals time in death penalty cases to five years, is supported by prosecutors and law enforcement who say it will begin to clear the legal bottleneck blocking the path to the death chamber. Attorney Barry Scheck, founder of the Innocence Project, cited several cases in which condemned prisoners had been found innocent, in some cases decades after their conviction, and one after he had been executed in Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

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The State of Texas must stand trial in a federal lawsuit, a judge has ruled, after more than 20 prisoners have died from extreme heat in Texas prison facilities.

At the center of this case is a Waco, Texas, man named Larry McCollum, who died of heat stroke in 2011. McCollum was a cab driver serving a one-year sentence for writing bad checks, and the prison where he was held was so hot he died less than two weeks after arriving at the jail. The Houston Press reports:

McCollum arrived at the Hutchins unit on July 15, 2011, during one of Texas’s hottest summers on record. Temperatures in the prison that week had been 109 to 112 degrees, with a heat index of roughly 150 degrees for at least four hours in a row on July 19 — which according to TDCJ’s own “Heat and Humidity Matrix” meant heat stroke was “imminent.” Inmates were supposed to receive ice water on a regular basis during this extreme heat, yet according to the judge’s order the temperature of the water given to inmates was 75 to 80 degrees. McCollum did not even own a cup for water since he would  need to purchase it from commissary, and new inmates could not access commissary for 30 to 45 days.

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As the Houston Press details, not only did the prison not have air conditioning or ice water, but also the windows were sealed; the shower temperature was fixed at 95 degrees; there were no personal fans; and there were only three floor and ceiling fans blowing hot, humid, stale air for nearly 60 inmates.

By the time McCollum was taken to the hospital for medical care — which did not happen until an hour after prison staff found him convulsing with heat stroke — his body temperature was 109 degrees. (Brain damage begins with a fever of “just” 108.) Six days later, he was dead, leaving behind a wife and two children.

“Larry McCollum’s tragic death was not simply bad luck, but an entirely preventable consequence of inadequate policies,” wrote U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison in his decision ordering a civil trial of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “These policies contributed to the deaths of 11 men before McCollum and 10 men after him.”

Ellison is right that McCollum should never have suffered the heat that killed him, and in weather conditions like these it is not hard to argue Texas runs afoul of the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment by not providing adequate heat relief.

Now, Texas has argued that retrofitting the 79 (out of 109) prisons in its system that do not have air conditioning “would be extremely expensive,” and that is no doubt true (though the State’s estimate of $100 million+ per prison is difficult to swallow). Perhaps, for now, adjustments like fans, cold showers, and real ice water will have to do.

But I can’t help but think there’s a better option still: Change how we handle this sort of nonviolent, low-level crime.

Is writing bad checks a crime? Yeah, absolutely. It’s a form a stealing, especially if done intentionally.

But it’s not a violent crime. It doesn’t pose any real, immediate danger to anyone. From the sound of it, Larry McCollum didn’t need to be in prison at all.

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He could have made good on his crime with probation, community service, paying a fine, or making restitution to the people or business who got his bad checks. (See this paper from Families Against Mandatory Minimums for a great rundown of prison alternatives.)

Keeping low-level, nonviolent offenders like Larry McCollum out of prison is really a no-brainer. It would save taxpayers huge amounts of money. It would keep families together instead of breaking them up for months or years at a time. It would even reduce crime, as prison alternatives have a substantially better record on preventing recidivism than traditional prisons.

And in McCollum’s case specifically, alternative sentencing would have saved his life.

Adding ice water and air conditioning to inhumanely hot Texas prisons is a good idea. Emptying those prisons of low-level, nonviolent offenders like Larry McCollum is a better one.

What do you think?

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