‘How do you get hypothermia in a prison?’ Records show hospitalizations among Virginia inmates

RICHMOND, Va. — The Virginia State Police investigator seemed surprised at what the inmate described: “unbearable” conditions in a prison so cold that toilet water froze and inmates were repeatedly treated for hypothermia.

“How do you get hypothermia in a prison?” the researcher asked. “You should not.”

The exchange, captured on video obtained by The Associated Press, occurred during an investigation into the death of Charles Givens, a developmentally disabled inmate at the Marion Correctional Treatment Center who had been repeatedly hospitalized for hypothermia, according to records.

After a special grand jury considered the case but opted not to pursue criminal charges, Givens’ sister filed a lawsuit in federal court, alleging that her brother was subjected to routine abuse, including “cold water torture ‘, before he was fatally beaten in 2022.

The lawsuit has raised broader questions about conditions at the southwestern Virginia prison, which the grand jury described as “inhumane and deplorable.”

The AP obtained data showing that inmates at Marion, which houses mostly mentally ill offenders, were hospitalized at least 13 times in three years for hypothermia during cold months, while medical providers expressed concern about temperatures inside the prison.

“I am hopeful that it will warm up a bit before fall officially begins… but the colder temperatures make this particular population vulnerable to hypothermia and possibly pneumonia,” a prison nurse wrote in September 2020. “I know we are always in the problems are there. trying to avoid hospital runs and the like.

Medical providers at the prison have raised the prospect that the antipsychotic medications some inmates were taking could have played a role in their hypothermia hospitalizations, according to the data. But medical experts not involved with the prison say these types of side effects are rare and the number of hospitalizations should have been a cause for concern.

“There is something unusual about the circumstances that would lead to these high rates of hospitalization for this condition, which would otherwise be really very unusual and very rare,” said Dr. Fred Jarskog, professor of psychiatry at UNC-Chapel Hill and research director. from the North Carolina Psychiatric Research Center “I can say that with a lot of confidence.”

Jarskog said he has treated patients with antipsychotic drugs for 30 years and has experienced “maybe” one episode of hypothermia. Even a single case of hypothermia in a patient in the hospital where he works would give rise to discussion. Figures like what the DOC has seen would prompt “a full-scale investigation,” he said.

Kyle Gibson, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections, repeatedly declined to answer questions about what the data showed or to address conditions at the prison, citing ongoing litigation. He did not accept an AP request to interview the facility’s director or another DOC official who oversaw Marion.

The Department of Corrections and the attorney general’s office previously withheld documents the AP sought under state law related to Givens’ death and inmate complaints about cold temperatures.

In addition to mentally ill inmates, the Marion prison houses offenders from the general population, like the person speaking to the researcher in the video, who provide support services including maintenance and cleaning.

A 2018 government procurement document for renovations that would include a replacement of the HVAC system stated that no major improvements had been made to the building since the core structures were built in 1955.

In the video exchange obtained by the AP, the inmate told the state police investigator that there was no functional heat in at least one part of the prison, leading to “unbearable” interior temperatures that he said were in the 40s Fahrenheit (4 .4 to 9.4 degrees Celsius) layers. or “maybe high 30s” (3.3 to 3.8 degrees Celsius) in the cells he cleaned.

The inmate also claimed that officers would open outside windows as a form of punishment, exacerbating the cold temperatures. The claim is echoed in the lawsuit, which states that hypothermia without exposure to outdoor air is uncommon. The inmate said he saw at least six people being treated for hypothermia.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that hypothermia, which can be fatal, is most likely to occur at very low temperatures, but can occur at lower temperatures above 40 degrees (4.4 degrees Celsius) if a person is cooled by water.

Emails and other documents obtained by the AP show medical workers at the prison discussing the cold conditions and expressing concern that the windows of the housing units were closed and blankets were available.

In court documents obtained by the AP, an institutional investigator who said he worked at the prison for decades and reported to the warden said the part of the facility where Givens was housed remained colder than other parts. The researcher indicated that he would not be surprised if he heard complaints about hypothermia.

Givens was hospitalized five times for hypothermia in the last year of his life.

“I understand that we all have concerns about Mr. Givens’ care,” a prison nurse noted in an email exchange.

Broadly speaking, the data reflects similar previously disclosed concerns about the facility.

A special grand jury, convened in 2022 at the request of the top local prosecutor, found Givens’ death “suspicious” and also said in a report that “almost every witness” found living conditions in the prison sector housing mentally ill inmates “unsuitable” mentioned.

“More than one witness had observed ice forming on the water in toilets. We find these conditions inhumane and deplorable,” the report said.

The grand jury concluded there was insufficient evidence to support an indictment in Givens’ death, but said the case should be reconsidered “should other evidence come to light.” The five officers named in the civil complaint have all denied allegations of torture and other misconduct, according to court documents.

As the trial over Givens’ death plays out, the Attorney General’s Office, which represents two additional defendants who held supervisory positions at the jail, has tried unsuccessfully to block additional discovery in the hypothermia or cold exposure allegations .

The office argued in court documents that because an autopsy found Givens died of blunt force trauma, “additional discoveries of incidents unrelated or at best loosely related to Mr. Givens’ death will render these proceedings unnecessary multiply.”

Last month, a judge denied the attorney general’s request.

The AP made multiple email attempts to reach the defendants’ lawyers, seeking comment on the case and allegations of cold temperatures. No one responded to questions except a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, who declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

Mark Krudys, an attorney for Givens’ sister Kym Hobbs, declined to comment on the AP’s findings.

Givens was serving a prison sentence for the 2010 fatal shooting of a woman who worked as a home health nurse for his mother. As a child, Givens suffered a traumatic brain injury after falling down a flight of stairs, and his intellectual and emotional development was limited to that of a second- or third-grader, according to the lawsuit.

Givens also had Crohn’s disease, which sometimes caused him to defecate on himself, a factor that his sister’s lawyers say made him a target for abuse.

In July, the AP reported that the FBI was investigating his death.

The civil trial is scheduled for January.


Associated Press reporter Denise Lavoie contributed to this report.