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Dauphin County jail cells were ‘ice cold’ days before a prisoner died

County officials said 45-year-old Jamal Crummel had hypothermia, but have yet to say whether it contributed to his death.

  • Brett Sholtis
FILE PHOTO: Dauphin County Prison

 Michael Rubinkam / AP Photo

FILE PHOTO: Dauphin County Prison

(Harrisburg) — In January, Judi LaVia Jones went to the Dauphin County Prison board meeting with a dire message. Her son’s prison cell was so cold, ice had formed on the inside of a window. Not the outside, she said. The inside. He could touch it.

“My son is a diabetic, and he has neuropathy in his feet,” Jones said, recounting her Jan. 26 conversation with the board. “He said, ‘Mom, my fingertips are blue.’” 

This was when, due to staffing issues and COVID-19 concerns, many prisoners were locked in their cells 23 hours a day, Jones said. Her 48-year-old son spent much of the winter huddled under a blanket.  

He wasn’t alone. On the E block where he was jailed, other inmates told him their cells were “ice cold.” While prison guards walked the corridors in winter coats, prisoners shivered in their cells in clothes that Jones likened to a nurse’s scrubs. Those who had money in their commissary accounts bought thermal shirts and extra socks. Those who didn’t, didn’t. 

Photo courtesy of Antoinette Black

Jamal Crummel

Jones’ story and public records shed light on the circumstances at the jail days before 45-year-old prisoner Jamal Crummel died. Officials have said Crummel had hypothermia, though it is not clear whether it contributed to his death. Prisoner advocates say the jail’s heating and cooling system has been a problem for years.

Jones relayed her son’s experience to the January meeting and called for solutions. She asked former Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, who now serves as a consultant at the jail, if he had checked temperatures in the cells. According to meeting minutes, Wetzel said, “The temperatures have been checked, and this topic continues to be under review.” He did not respond to requests for comment.

Dauphin County Prison Warden Gregory Briggs agreed to give prisoners on some cell blocks thermal shirts, January meeting minutes show. Records from the next meeting on February 23 state that those shirts were given to inmates on the E, F, L and M blocks. Briggs didn’t respond to requests for more information.

Soon after the January meeting, Jones’s son told her that prison staff removed plexi-glass from the windows on the E block cell doors, “so that some of the warm air that is in the corridor can go into the cells,” she said.

Down the hall on the M block, Jamal Crummel was back in his cell after a recent stay in the UPMC Harrisburg hospital intensive care unit. It is unclear whether he got a thermal shirt or had his cell windowpane removed to get warm air. 

What is clear is that it got colder outside. January average low temperatures were in the mid-20s, according to AccuWeather meteorologist Jake Sojda. On the night of Jan. 30, AccuWeather’s Harrisburg thermometer registered a low of 12 degrees. 

“The normal low temperature at the end of January is 24,” Sojda said. “So you’re looking at 12 degrees below normal.”

At some point that night the following morning, Crummel died in his bed. He was the 16th prisoner to die at the jail since 2019.

Crummel was awaiting charges following a September incident in which he allegedly drove his vehicle toward plain-clothes state police troopers in Harrisburg. Friends and family said Crummel lived with a serious mental illness that led him to act irrationally when he was not on his prescribed medication. 

Brett Sholtis / WITF

Graham Hetrick talks to reporters Thur., Sept. 5, 2019.

More than four months after Crummel died, the circumstances of his death remain blocked from public scrutiny. The Dauphin County Coroner’s Office has not released an autopsy report. In April, Coroner Graham Hetrick said he was awaiting a lab result. He did not respond to a recent request for more information. 

In February a family member told PennLive that the coroner’s office said Crummel had hypothermia, a potentially fatal condition that occurs when a person’s body loses heat faster than it can produce it. Cold temperatures, as well as wind and being wet, can cause it.

Dauphin County District Attorney Fran Chardo said Crummel “had been treated for hypothermia in the past” but declined to provide more details ahead of the coroner’s report. In February, Chardo told PennLive that Crummel “had hypothermia but said county investigators do not believe that is what caused his death.”

Because the prison building was expanded over time, some cells can be difficult to heat, Chardo said. 

“There are parts that are really, really warm and there are parts that are really, really cold,” Chardo said. “It’s different temperatures all over the place. And in this particular area, the cells were much lower temperature, and it was because the heating elements were in the corridors, and if you tried to heat it, the corridors would get too hot.”

Katie Meyer / WITF

Dauphin County District Attorney Fran Chardo, at a press conference in 2019.

Chardo said investigators checked Crummel’s cell “within hours” of his death and found that the air temperature was in the low 60s and would not have been dangerous.

Prison records show that Crummel’s cell door would have been repeatedly opened, or left open, allowing warm air in for at least 40 minutes before county detectives arrived. By then, prison medical staff had performed CPR and emergency medical personnel had arrived.

Those records also show that in the weeks prior to his death, Crummel’s physical health appears to have deteriorated. He took several trips to UPMC Harrisburg hospital, including one on Dec. 15 to rule out a head injury after a nurse observed a “change in mental status” and vomiting. He spent about a month at the hospital prior to being sent back to the jail on Jan. 24, PennLive reported.   

While it’s unclear what role it may have played in Crummel’s death, the heating issue has plagued the jail for years. In 2019, prisoners told WITF cell temperatures were “so cold they can see their breath.” Pennsylvania Prison Society volunteer Destiny Brown said that when she toured the prison that year, she saw “icicles and frost” in some cells. 

Back then, most prisoners would get time outside of their cells throughout the day, Brown said. The COVID-19 pandemic changed that. Staff shortages and lockdowns meant prisoners were staying in their cells almost all day long. 

Some steps have been taken to fix the problem, records show. In February, County Commissioner Mike Pries said $3 million was being spent to address HVAC issues.

Brown said it’s a problem that cannot wait until next winter to be resolved.

“In the summer, I get calls that they’re hot,” she said. Families are “upset because their loved ones are laying on the floor with their nose up against the bottom portion of the door, trying to get some fresh air.”

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