Seth Donnelly desperately wanted to get out of the kitchen. Ever since the 29-year-old got his HVAC certification in prison, he applied for maintenance jobs — highly sought-after assignments in lockup — but a dumb tattoo always seemed to get in the way. Three years before he pleaded guilty to intoxication manslaughter in exchange for a 12-year prison sentence in 2012, Donnelly had the words “Dirty White Boy” needled onto his chest. Not surprisingly, the ink attracted unwanted attention behind bars. Each time he arrived at a new unit, prison guards assumed he was part of a similarly named white supremacist gang and put him on grunt jobs like kitchen duty. “The major and I didn’t get off on good terms,” Donnelly wrote to his sister after one transfer. “He’s convinced I’m a gang member because of my stupid chest tattoo. God I wish I never would’ve never gotten it.”
Donnelly’s mother, Deborah, says her son feared working in the kitchen at the Robertson Unit in Abilene, where he landed a couple years ago, worried he’d end up either hurt or in trouble there. Then, two months ago, Donnelly called home, ecstatic about a new job training dogs to catch escaped prisoners. Deborah was happy but grew nervous once she learned more about the assignment: the hours her son spent outside the prison gates laying scents for the hounds to track; the trees he climbed to hide from the dogs; the stifling, 75-pound “fight suit” he wore for protection when the dogs attacked.
Soon after he took the job, Donnelly complained about the heat. “Very hot today and tomorrow is supposed to be 102,” he wrote to a friend on June 19. “There that Texas heat is. I’m exhausted from work today and I may have gotten a little too much sun as I’m a little red.” It appears to have been Donnelly’s final letter. Two days later, he collapsed after finishing an early morning training run with the dogs, during which he’d been wearing the suit. According to a local justice of the peace, his internal body temperature was 106 degrees when he arrived at the hospital. Donnelly died on June 23 at 1:06 p.m. after doctors took him off life support. A preliminary autopsy lists the cause of death as “multiorgan failure following severe hyperthermia.”
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. Some say it’s another tragic example of the need for independent oversight of the state’s hulking prison system, a proposal that failed during the most recent legislative session. “This is absolutely ridiculous and avoidable,” Amite Duncan, vice president of Texas Prisons Air Conditioning Advocates, told the Houston Chronicle. “I always say that oversight is completely necessary because they keep getting away with these things. I feel like policies aren’t being followed.”
Donnelly’s death also 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.
Texas has long faced criticism for being one of the only states that turns inmates into targets for dogs trained to track escapees. The practice drew fire during the 1990 governor’s race after a state prison board member and spokesperson for Ann Richards’ Republican opponent joined in the chase with his buddies, whom he later sent souvenir jackets embroidered with the slogan “The Ultimate Hunt.”
While it’s unclear how often they occur, serious injuries have happened on the job. In 1983, the prison system paid $14,000 to two inmates who were mauled by dogs. One former inmate I spoke to who trained dogs at the Hobby Unit several years ago recalled breaking her tailbone after falling out of a tree. The woman, who asked that I not use her name, also said a coworker broke her leg after a dog pulled her to the ground.
Despite the hazards, dog training is a favored job for low-risk inmates like Donnelly who earn “trusty” status and get to work outside the prison gates. Donnelly’s mother, Deborah, says he loved the work but complained that prison staff didn’t always provide enough water. “He said the guards were very cruel at times, that they wouldn’t always give the guys breaks or allow them to go cool down in the air conditioning,” she said. “I got real worried when I started to hear that, knowing how hot it can get in those big suits.”
Deborah says a prison chaplain called her early the morning of Friday, June 21, to tell her Donnelly had been taken to the hospital for heatstroke but was breathing and stable. She discovered the situation was much more serious when she arrived at the hospital later that afternoon. Doctors told her Donnelly had suffered severe organ damage and showed very little brain activity. He got progressively worse until Sunday, when doctors told the family that he showed no brain activity. They took him off life support that afternoon.
Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesperson Jeremy Desel wouldn’t answer questions about Donnelly’s death, but in an emailed statement said his initial toxicology screening “indicated the presence of methamphetamines.” Both Donnelly’s family and a prison system investigator who spoke with the Chronicle say it’s unclear whether the initial drug testing was reliable or whether he’d been taking any medication that could trigger a false positive. The prison system’s Office of Inspector General, which investigates all prison deaths, declined to answer questions about Donnelly’s case or two other deaths at the Robertson Unit this year that the office was tasked with investigating.
Donnelly’s mother believes the prison system could have done more for her son. While prison officials say guards found Donnelly “in distress” around 4 a.m., he didn’t arrive at the hospital until about 5:45, according to the local justice of the peace. “That alone is beyond comprehension,” Deborah said. “I don’t understand it.”
Donnelly would have been eligible for parole in March. His mother had already started helping him compile a package for his parole board hearing — letters of support from family and friends, the stack of certificates he completed behind bars. “Now I don’t know where to put it all,” she said.