James Gill: Misbehavior issue heats up

Angola Warden Burl Cain is not only famously devoted to God, but must have a pretty good idea of what He feels like.

Cain is lord of all he surveys, and there is a bunch of it. Angola incorporates an 18,000-acre farm that sustains some 6,000 inmates, and bills itself as the largest maximum security prison in America. Cain took charge in 1995, so command is a habit and adjusting to the role of mere mortal must be difficult when he ventures into the outside world.

That applies in spades when an excursion beyond the penitentiary grounds requires obedience, as, for instance, to the orders of a federal judge. That has proved too much for Cain as defendant in a lawsuit brought by three death-row inmates who claim their cells are so hot that their health is suffering.

Judge Brian Jackson ordered a contractor hired to monitor temperatures for three weeks leading up to the trial — and no funny business from the administration to skew the numbers.

Cain promptly had prisoners erect awnings over the windows on two death-row tiers in the middle of the night and ordered hoses played on the outside walls. Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc testified that when he found out what Cain had done, he lodged no objection. Dumb and dumber about covers it. The awnings will still be there when Jackson, who is considering sanctions for evidence tampering, visits death row Monday.

Cain was obliged to admit fallibility — “I really messed up,” he told Jackson — but not impurity of motive. Thanks to Jackson’s order, he could compare temperatures on different tiers and find out whether his measures worked. “We had a chance to finally see if we could make a difference,” he said. But, had he been that keen to alleviate death-row conditions, he needn’t have waited until a suit was filed to put his ideas into practice.

They evidently wouldn’t have made a discernible difference anyway. Cain reported that the water pressure was too low to cool the bricks, while the awnings served no purpose beyond, perhaps, the decorative. This is hardly surprising; the heat index on death row has reached as high as 195 degrees, according to the lawsuit; higher-tech methods will be needed if the condemned are to get the relief they seek.

For all that theirs is not a popular cause, they may get it, for they have dual grounds for arguing that the federal government should guarantee their rights until the state gets round to killing them. The federal appeals court in New Orleans has already ruled that subjecting prisoners to excessive heat may be considered cruel and unusual, while the three plaintiffs also claim to have medical problems that entitle them to the protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Our motives were good,” Cain told Jackson when apologizing for flouting the court order, although that, even if true, makes no never mind. But for the grace of God, his interference would have distorted the data Jackson needs to make a decision. The only reason he didn’t disrupt proceedings is that his cooling plan flopped big time.

At least we know that Jackson, if he finds for the plaintiffs, will figure more is needed than awnings and a hosepipe. Hand-held fans all round won’t cut it either. Attorneys for the state have argued in court that installing air conditioning would be too expensive. Their estimate of the cost is naturally much higher than the plaintiffs’.

That discrepancy may be no more relevant than the allegedly good intentions behind Cain’s defiance of Jackson’s order, however. If death-row conditions are deemed unconstitutional, and air conditioning is the only way to keep the inmates from frying, it will have to be installed regardless.

Attorneys for the state, however, argue that conditions there do not put the plaintiffs at risk and that their discomfort is part of the punishment they deserve.

Cain’s misbehavior will probably not affect the outcome of the case, but it is never sound strategy for a defendant to ignore instructions. Prison wardens are not the only ones who resemble gods. So do federal judges.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@ theadvocate.com.