Death of Inmate Working in Extreme Heat Spurs Reform of Texas Prisons

by Vins
Published: Updated:

In June 2019, a Texas prison inmate, Seth Donnelly, passed away due to multiple organ failure and severe hyperthermia after an outdoor dog training session on a morning when temperatures reached 102 degrees. Donnelly, who wore a 75-pound bite jacket while working as a dog trainer, expired in part because his work included neither water breaks nor time to rest in air conditioning, according to a report by Michael Barajas for the Texas Observer. As Barajas wrote, “Donnelly’s death has drawn criticism from advocates for prison reform and civil rights attorneys who have spent years fighting to end heat-related deaths inside Texas prisons.” Describing calls for independent oversight of the state’s “hulking” prison system, Barajas reported that the inmates’ death “underscores the strenuous work Texas inmates are forced to perform without pay, as well as the prison system’s controversial use of inmates as prey in staged dog hunts.”

Donnelly was serving a 12-year sentence after pleading guilty of intoxication manslaughter in 2012. He was frequently assigned “grunt jobs” because guards assumed that his tattoos meant he was connected to a gang. Two months before his death, Donnelly started a new job training dogs to catch escapees. Inmates working as dog trainers got to go outside the prison gates to lay scents for the hounds to track, but they also sometimes had to wear stifling, 75-pound “fight suits” for protection when the dogs attacked.

A few days before his death, Donnelly wrote a letter to a friend, expressing concerns about working in the extreme heat. “Very hot today and tomorrow is supposed to be 102,” he wrote to a friend on June 19. “I’m exhausted from work today and I may have gotten a little too much sun as I’m a little red.”  Two days later, Donnelly was fond in distress and taken to the hospital where his internal body temperature was determined to be 106 degrees. (A temperature of 104 degrees is the threshold for extreme hyperthermia.) Donnelly was taken off life support on June 28, when he showed no brain activity.

Texas has been subject to backlash as one of the few states that continues to have inmates work under dangerous conditions. In March 2019 Barajas reported, “Advocates for prison reform are asking the Legislature to create independent oversight” for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Rep. Jarvis Johnson, a Houston Democrat, who is sponsoring the legislation for a second session, told the Observer, “You can’t expect the system to correct itself.”

Johnson’s bill would create a governor-appointed watchdog office to monitor the adult system much in the same way an independent ombudsman regularly documents conditions inside Texas’ juvenile prisons. However, as Barajas reported, “session after session” Texas legislators have “refused to bring similar transparency” to the state’s adult prison system.

As of September 4, 2019, there has been no corporate coverage regarding the death of Seth Donnelly aside from reporting by the Texas Observer.


Michael Barajas, “Death of Dog Trainer Highlights Strenuous Heat and Working Conditions at Texas Prisons,” Texas Observer, July 2, 2019,

Michael Barajas, “A Tale of Two Prison Systems,” Texas Observer, March 27, 2019,

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