The Inside Story
Prisoner rights attorney Scott Medlock says making a mistake shouldn’t mean losing your dignity
Published in 2019 Texas Rising Stars magazine
on March 14, 2019
Updated on July 18, 2019
During the brutal Dallas summer of 2011, Larry Gene McCollum, 58, overweight and imprisoned at a state facility, suffered heat stroke when, according to the prison’s records, the heat index neared 150 degrees on a July evening.
His death would prompt the Texas Civil Rights Project to sue the state, where—according to The New York Times—only 21 of 111 state-run prisons were fully air-conditioned at the time. Ten inmates, including McCollum, died that summer as a result.
For Scott Medlock, then-director of the TCRP’s prisoners’ rights program, it was the kind of case that spurred him to pursue law in the first place. He had spent a decade working on heat-related prison death cases, filing a series of wrongful-death lawsuits that helped push the Texas prison system to provide better prisoner care.
Inspired by his comic book heroes—Spider-Man in particular—the 39-year-old Denver native considered a social justice career as early as elementary school, but it wasn’t until high school, when he started watching Law & Order, that the law bug really hit. “I wanted to be Jack McCoy,” he says. But the more he learned of the law, the more the flaws of his favorite show were revealed. “That’s quadruple hearsay!” he’d say as courtroom scenes unfolded onscreen. “Not admissible!”
At the University of Texas School of Law, he took a seminar led by Jim Harrington, founder and then-director of the TCRP in Austin, and he became hooked on civil rights law.
After graduation, Medlock volunteered with Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit serving those facing the death penalty. Then Harrington reached out with an opportunity to launch a prisoners’ rights arm for the project. Medlock won settlements in cases involving mistreatment of a schizophrenic Muslim inmate and the death of a young prisoner after an asthma attack.
Then came the McCollum case. The Waco-area cab driver was doing time for forgery at Hutchins State Jail, a medium-security facility with no A/C in the inmate areas. McCollum’s body convulsed for nearly an hour before the guards called 911. At the hospital, his body temperature measured 109; he died several days later.
McCollum’s children came looking for legal help. “They were just the nicest people,” Medlock says. “They knew their dad had made a mistake, but they thought he’d come home in a couple of years and be Grandpa.
“Other families started coming to us. They had similar stories—guys doing short-term sentences for almost trivial crimes, who ended up dying very quick deaths.”
Unlike Texas’ county jails, state prisons had no regulations stipulating maximum temperatures—and, unlike most states, few had air conditioning. “It was really eye-opening to find out that Texas was one of the outliers,” he says. “And the callousness of the administrators we started deposing was pretty shocking.”
Last year, after U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison of Houston ordered Texas prison system officials to civil trial for failing to take measures to keep prisoners alive, the McCollum case settled for $905,000, though the Hutchins facility still has no maximum temperature restrictions.
Still, as a result of that and other lawsuits brought by Medlock and his firm, Edwards Law, which he joined in 2013, prison officers are better trained to spot issues early and supply cold water, ice and portable cooling machines. “They’re being more aggressive about checking on guys,” Medlock says. “Prisoners are still suffering, but they’re not dying.”
And the state has slowly begun installing A/C in inmate areas, with 30 of its 105 state-run facilities now outfitted, according to Prison Legal News.
Currently, Medlock is working on cases involving prisoner suicides. “It’s eminently preventable,” he says, “usually with some minimal care, attention and goodwill from officers.”
Medlock says his civil rights work makes him feel like he’s making a difference. While it’s great to get medical bills paid for a client who has been rear-ended, he says, “it’s not like it’s going to stop rear-end car accidents. Whereas, if I sue a police department for using Tasers, it might make the department look at their Taser use and not resort to excessive force next time around.”
One thing that has surprised Medlock about his work is how little separates those in prison from those on the outside: “There’s a humanity to these people that is forgotten and washed away. Most of them just made a mistake—and sometimes a really awful one—but they’re still human beings who deserve dignity and safety. Just like everybody else.”