During the early morning count on Saturday, Aug. 26, state corrections officers found Vincent Willis dead in his cell at the Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy.
The 59-year-old prisoner died overnight in his sleep, according to an offender death report obtained through the Oklahoma Open Records Act. The report lists natural causes as the suspected cause of death, which medical personnel generally cite when someone dies from a chronic health condition or illness. While Willis’ death was unexpected, the state medical examiner opted not to accept his body for an autopsy.
Another older prisoner in the same housing unit died two days earlier. Jimmy Lanford, a 63-year-old man serving a life sentence for a first-degree murder in Osage County, was taken to a Tulsa hospital on Aug. 17. He died a week later. The state medical examiner will rule on a final cause of death.
Tonya Wilson Peel, a former correctional case manager at Dick Conner who worked alongside Lanford during her employment at the prison, said he had a sharp sense of humor and loved his job making license plates for the State of Oklahoma. She said Lanford had complained of excessive heat for several weeks leading up to his death but declined to seek help because he didn’t want money to be deducted from his commissary account for a medical visit.
“He had a heart attack that I’m pretty sure was caused due to the heat,” Wilson Peel said. “He was just so hot. He had told me several times that he was taking a towel and dipping it in ice water and putting it around his neck because he felt like he just couldn’t breathe.”
A corrections department employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of violating the agency’s media policy said Lanford and Willis had pre-existing health concerns but lived in a general population unit and maintained jobs. On one particularly hot day, the temperature inside a cell at Dick Conner reached as high as 97 degrees Fahrenheit, the employee said.
Dick Conner is one of several Oklahoma prisons that does not have universal air conditioning. Corrections department policy does not mandate a temperature range in living areas, though it does state prison officials should try to increase airflow during the summer months. The Oklahoma Department of Health requires pretrial facilities to maintain positive airflow if temperatures exceed 85.
The two men died as an unrelenting heat wave gripped the southern U.S. From August 20-26, the Tulsa International Airport Station reported an average high of 100, with temperatures early in the week as high as 104. The Tulsa airport is about 50 miles southeast of Dick Conner.
U.S. prisons and jails disproportionately house individuals susceptible to extreme heat, including those with chronic health conditions and those who take psychotropic medications. In a study published last year, Harvard University researchers found that death rates are significantly higher in Texas prisons that lack air conditioning than those that are climate-controlled.
Heat exposure is often under-identified in autopsies, according to a report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The stress of heat exposure can increase the risk of dying from cardiovascular or respiratory disease, which are more common than heat stroke and heat exhaustion, the report said.
Corrections department spokesperson Kay Thompson said the men were in poor health and prison medical staff do not suspect heat played a role in the deaths. She said Dick Conner and other facilities that lack air conditioning use portable chillers and fans to keep temperatures down during heat waves. Prisoners receive unlimited access to water and ice and staff regularly gauge indoor temperatures during count times.
Prisoner advocates argue the deaths highlight a need for universal air conditioning within Oklahoma’s correctional system.
Emily Shelton, founder of the Oklahoma prisoner advocacy group Hooked on Justice, said she has received dozens of complaints of excessive heat at Dick Conner. In messages shared with Oklahoma Watch, one prisoner complained of temperatures being so hot that he poured toilet water on himself to keep cool. Another inmate wrote that he was struggling to breathe in the stifling heat.
Darrell Wiggins served 35 years in Oklahoma state prisons before being released on parole in February. The 55-year-old Tulsa resident, who served time at Dick Conner and several other state prisons, said he would intentionally cause trouble during the summer to get transferred to a cooler unit.
“I would go to segregation because I know there’s air conditioning,” Wiggins said. “And then I would pray hard to God that he would send me to a place that has air conditioning or just isn’t as hot. It’s all steel and concrete in there, there’s no shade or trees or anywhere you can go.”
State Rep. Justin Humphrey, chair of the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee, said he has fielded several calls from corrections staff and family members of prisoners complaining of excessive heat. He said he’d like the Oklahoma Department of Labor to complete a systemwide audit of state prison facilities.
As for installing air conditioning in more prisons, Humphrey said the agency could use savings from incarcerating fewer prisoners to improve facility conditions.
“I remember some time ago we gave them quite a bit of money when [Joe] Allbaugh was in there to fix the facilities and get those improvements done,” said Humprey, R-Lane. “They’re not happening.”
Prisoner advocates across the U.S. have been pressing for laws requiring air conditioning in all prison facilities. At least 44 states don’t have universal air conditioning, according to a USA Today analysis published in July 2022.
The Texas House of Representatives passed a bill in April allotting $545 million over eight years to install air conditioning in every state prison, with supporters arguing it would help the state fend off wrongful death and civil rights lawsuits and protect vulnerable prisoners and corrections staff. The measure ultimately failed in the Senate.
Wiggins said expanding air conditioning in Oklahoma prisons could help cool tensions and take a burden off medical staff. Exposure to heat isn’t supposed to be part of a prison sentence, he said.
“You’re not supposed to make the situation unbearable,” Wiggins said. “We’re already away from our families and can’t exercise certain rights, then you want to keep us there burning up.”