Metro-East News

Lawsuit alleges cruel and unusual punishment in death of Menard inmate who overheated

Menard Correctional Center in Chester opened in 1878.
Menard Correctional Center in Chester opened in 1878. AP

The mother of an inmate who died from overheating at Menard Correctional Facility accused the prison of cruel and unusual punishment in a lawsuit filed Wednesday in East St. Louis.

On the day Michael Jefferson died, July 11, 2017, the low temperature was 84 degrees, according to Weather Underground's history center. That day, the temperature rose to 94 degrees, most likely making the not-air-conditioned, poorly ventilated cell in which Jefferson was housed unbearably hot, according to a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois.

Lindsey Hess, a spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Corrections, said the department could not comment on pending litigation.

Jefferson, in custody awaiting a verdict on gun charges, was in a segregation unit on the sixth floor of the correctional facility, housed in a unit for mentally ill inmates. He had bipolar disorder and was on medicine that made him more susceptible to heat-related illnesses, according to the lawsuit. His cell had three cement walls and a steel door, and was often hotter than it was outside during the summer.

Correctional staff has policies in place for days when the temperature is higher than 90 degrees, when inmates may be in danger of overheating, according to the lawsuit. Those policies say staff should attempt to address overheating by giving inmates ice, ice water, additional ventilation and access to showers, as well as by monitoring the temperatures in cells. The lawsuit alleges the policies were either not followed or were done haphazardly.

Inmates, including Jefferson, were complaining about the heat, and Jefferson told guard his cold water didn't work in his cell, according to the lawsuit.

That same day, Jefferson was found unresponsive in his cell, and was taken to Chester Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

An autopsy indicated Jefferson had died from an imbalance of electrolytes in his body and a probable abnormal heartbeat. Photos of Jefferson's body spread online, as Charles alleged that her son had not died of natural causes because of visible wounds and swelling.

A statement from the Illinois Department of Corrections just after Jefferson's death said it had launched an investigation into his death, as always.

"It is the department's understanding that the wounds seen in the pictures of Mr. Jefferson's body are consistent with those incurred during an autopsy and the swelling a result of the body's rapid decomposition," it said.