Judge: Heat on La. death row is unsafe for inmates
BATON ROUGE (AP) — Louisiana’s death row gets so hot that it violates U.S. constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson sided with three condemned inmates who filed a lawsuit that said death row conditions during summer months were unsafe.
Jackson said the heat data collected by a court-ordered contractor from July 15 through Aug. 5 “unequivocally established that inmates housed in each of the death row tiers are consistently, and for long periods of time, subjected to high temperatures and heat indices in the (National Weather Service’s) ‘caution,’ ‘extreme caution,’ and ‘danger’ zones.”
The judge ordered the state corrections department and the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola to give him a plan by Feb. 17 that will cool the cells so the heat index never goes above 88 degrees.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Pam Laborde said the agency expects to appeal the judge’s ruling.
The civil rights lawsuit was filed in June by the Promise of Justice Initiative, a New Orleans-based nonprofit group, on behalf of condemned killers Elzie Ball, Nathaniel Code and James Magee.
All three men have high blood pressure, along with other health conditions that their lawyers say the heat could make worse.
The lawsuit claimed heat conditions were “extreme and unsafe,” with cell bars too hot to touch, fans that “feel like blow dryers” and inmates sleeping on the floor because it was cooler than in their beds. During his testimony, Magee described conditions that felt like a “sauna” in the morning and an “oven” in the afternoon.
“When Angola’s leadership were told of the risks faced by Death Row inmates, they buried their heads in the sand like ostriches and refused to correct the problem,” Nilay Vora, a lawyer for the inmates said in a written statement. “We are pleased that Judge Jackson undertook a thorough examination of the issues in this lengthy and well-reasoned decision.”
Windows and fans are the primary sources of ventilation on death row, a 25,000-square foot facility built in 2006. Lawyers for the inmates suggested the state penitentiary should add air conditioning or another type of mechanical cooling system.
A trial was held in August. Defendants in the case were the state’s corrections secretary, his department and the wardens of the state penitentiary and its death row.
Prison officials said the conditions might be uncomfortable for the inmates during the hottest summer months, but they are safe. They said the inmates have access to medical care and none of the three plaintiffs have ever been diagnosed with adverse heat reactions.
“The Department will take some time to carefully review Judge Jackson’s ruling. However, given the judge’s orders outlined on the last three pages of the ruling, it is highly likely that the Department will seek relief from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals,” Laborde said in an email.
Jackson ordered the state to pay some fees and court costs of the lawyers representing the inmates. The sanction was tied to efforts by Warden Burl Cain to cool the death row cells with temporary awnings and water soakings of the concrete walls during the court-ordered temperature monitoring period and the follow-up explanations by state officials.
The judge said he would hold a future hearing on whether to order personal sanctions against the attorneys representing the state “for lack of candor” during the course of the lawsuit.
He had blistering comments about the testimony of Angelia Norwood, the assistant warden in charge of death row. He described portions of her testimony as “illogical and riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies.”
Jackson traveled to Angola, 60 miles north of Baton Rouge, to check out the cell blocks for himself before issuing his 102-page ruling.