Inside Report: Summer heat causes misery beyond Death Row

Summers in south Louisiana are brutal.

It’s not unusual for daily temperatures to reach the mid to high 90s, including heat indexes over 100 degrees on some days, the state Department of Health and Hospitals has reported.

Beyond being a topic of common misery, the heat has become a legal issue in Louisiana.

The Promise of Justice Initiative, a New Orleans nonprofit, filed a federal lawsuit in June on behalf of three convicted murderers at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in West Feliciana Parish complaining about the heat on Death Row.

The attorneys allege that heat indexes of more than 100 degrees amount to constitutionally prohibited cruel and unusual punishment, and they claim the heat indexes inside Death Row at the state penitentiary, located in West Feliciana Parish, reached 172 degrees last year and 195 degrees in 2011.

The judge’s ruling in the case is pending.

The triple-digit heat indexes cited in the lawsuit are similar to the conditions endured by inmates on Death Row in Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, none of which provide air conditioning, which is provided to condemned prisoners in Arkansas.

But you don’t have to be on Death Row to be at risk from heat and humidity.

There were 12 reported heat-related deaths in Louisiana in 2012, according to preliminary data from the DHH. In 2011 and 2010, DHH reported 17 heat-related deaths each of those years.

Since 1989, some 22 children died in Louisiana of hyperthermia or heat stroke after being left unattended in a car, according to the state Department of Children and Family Services.

In July, East Baton Rouge Parish EMS responded to 39 heat-related illness calls. The same month in 2012, East Baton Rouge Parish EMS paramedics responded to 43 heat-related illness calls.

For most of us, a summer without air conditioning would seem unbearable.

For some of us, that’s a reality.

Chester Phillips, 68, endured the past year without air conditioning at his Baker home.

His central air-conditioning system broke in the early part of 2012 and he couldn’t afford to repair or replace the system.

The retired school teacher tried to cool his home with ceiling fans, but that didn’t work too well.

“I couldn’t sleep at night,” he said. “I would lie there until 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. until it was cool enough to fall asleep.”

Help came from the East Baton Rouge Parish Council on Aging’s annual Fan and Air Conditioning Drive.

In mid July, the parish agency gave Phillips a window air-conditioning unit free of charge.

The agency distributes fans and window units to low-income families and to seniors who qualify under its income guidelines.

Because temperatures continue to hover between the mid and high 90s, the agency has extended the giveaway.

The agency obtains the fans and window units through donations of both equipment and funds.

So far this year, the agency has given away 74 window units and 556 box fans.

For more information about the program or to donate money, fans or window units, visit www.ebrcoa.org and click ‘Wish List’ or call (225) 923-8000.

Meanwhile, drink plenty of water, stay indoors when possible and keep a close watch on children and the elderly.

Steven Ward is a general-assignment reporter for The Advocate. Contact him at sward@theadvocate.com or follow him on Twitter @wardreporter.