Jon Southards (Full Name: Jon Anthony Southards), 36, Died In Custody At Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Estelle Unit In Huntsville
HUNTSVILLE, TEXAS (October 18, 2023) - An inmate identified as Jon Southards has tragically died in custody at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Estelle Unit in Huntsville.
Walker County officials are saying that the incident began on June 28. Correctional officers noticed that Jon Southards was unresponsive in his jail cell.
Jail and medical staff entered the cell in order to help him. It was determined he went into cardiac arrest. Despite life-saving measures, Jon Southards could not be revived and he was later pronounced dead.
Tona Southards-Naranjo is the inmate’s mother. She has told reporters that she believes heat may have played a role in her son’s death.
Before he died, she said that her son told her that he was hot and being deprived of water. A full investigation into the in-custody death remains ongoing at this time.
Liability For Walker County Inmate Deaths
Heat inside of Texas jails has been a concern for decades. Though it is rare for any person to die of heat stroke in or outside of jail, weather conditions can easily contribute to deaths. In particular, the heat can impact cardiac conditions. According to the Texas Tribune, “Most Texas prisons lack air conditioning. At least 41 prisoners have died of heart-related or undetermined causes since the unrelenting heat wave began.” Texas is one of only 13 states in the nation that don’t require air conditioning units in their jails. There are a number of signs of heat-related distress that correctional officers should look for.
- People going through a heat-related illness may experience muscle contractions or spasms. This can be a sign of dehydration.
- People going through a heat-related illness may experience nausea, headache, fatigue and heavy sweating.
- People going through a heat-related illness may have seizures, a slow pulse and shallow breathing.
All jails have a legal obligation to provide inmates with adequate healthcare and a reasonably safe environment. Judges across the country from Arizona to Wisconsin have held that the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution forbids incarceration in unreasonably hot or cold temperatures. Still, state legislatures have dragged their feet in taking action to add air conditioning to many jails. When jail officials notice that someone is in medical distress from a heat related illness, they must act. If a jail is deliberately indifferent to the serious medical needs of an inmate, this could form the basis of a constitutional claim. It is crucial that evidence is properly preserved after any in-custody death.
- Many jails have surveillance cameras that can capture the moments leading up to an inmate going into medical distress.
- Witness statements should be collected from jail staff as well as other inmates.
- Medical records related to the death should be preserved. This should include the reports of any autopsy that is conducted.
- Communication records between jail staff that looked after the inmate that died should be reviewed. These can often be key pieces of evidence in showing correctional officers were indifferent.
Jails never want to admit that their actions may have contributed to an inmate’s death. This is particularly true with respect to in-custody deaths during the summer months. It is laughable to think that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has not had any heat-related deaths since 2012 - as they claim. It is a fact that there is a sharp increase in cardiac related deaths during summer months at Texas jails. It is well established that heat can exasperate heart conditions and contribute to cardiac arrest.
Investigating Inmate Deaths At The Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Estelle Unit
We at Scott H. Palmer, P.C. extend our deepest condolences to the family of Jon Southards. Any person that may have more information about what happened should reach out to investigators. It is our sincere hope that jails across Texas will take measures to prevent similar tragedies down the road. No family should ever have to go through something like this.
Do you need more information about an in-custody death at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Estelle Unit? Our team of civil rights attorneys are here to help in any way that we can. We care deeply that inmates are aware of their rights and that jails are upholding constitutional standards. Whether you just have legal questions or need more information about any particular incident we are here for you. You can reach out to us anytime at 214-987-4100.