Inmate lawsuit alleges excessive heat at Angola

Three death row inmates sued state agencies in Baton Rouge federal court Monday over heat indexes alleged to have reached 172 degrees last year and 195 degrees in 2011.

Assigned to Chief U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson, the suit targets the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections and the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where death row inmates are housed.

Officials of the corrections department did not respond Monday to a request for comment.

The suit was filed for the inmates by Mercedes Montagnes, deputy director of a New Orleans nonprofit organization, The Promise of Justice Initiative.

“The conditions on death row at Angola are horrifying and a fundamental violation of Constitutional protections,” Montagnes said in a written statement.

Elzie Ball, 60, is one of the inmates for whom the suit was filed.

Ball has been on death row since August 1997 for the May 15, 1996, shooting death of beer deliveryman Ben Scorsone during the armed robbery of a lounge in Gretna. Witnesses said Ball knocked Scorsone to the floor before firing three shots. Scorsone died before an ambulance arrived.

Also suing the state is inmate James C. Magee, 35, who was convicted for the April 2007 shotgun murders of his estranged wife, 28-year-old Adrienne Magee, and their 5-year-old son, Zach, on a street in the Tall Timbers subdivision north of Mandeville in St. Tammany Parish.

The third plaintiff is inmate Nathaniel Code, 57. Code is on death row for the 1985 murders of four people at a house in Shreveport.

A jury convicted Code for the bathtub drowning of 34-year-old Vivian Chaney; the stabbing and slashing death of Chaney’s 17-year-old daughter, Carlitha; and the shooting deaths of Chaney’s brother, Jerry Culbert, and her boyfriend, Billy Joe Harris.

Last summer, another New Orleans nonprofit organization, The Advocacy Center, sued the corrections department and penitentiary for access to temperature logs and other death row records.

That suit included a letter from Montagnes to Angola Warden Burl Cain. Montagnes wrote in the letter that death row temperatures for July and August 2011 “consistently ranged from 88 … to 100 degrees.”

State officials and The Advocacy Center reached a settlement agreement in that suit in late March, court records show. State officials granted the nonprofit organization access to death row for the purpose of investigating allegations of excessive heat.

“The distinction is that (the Advocacy Center) suit was simply about access to investigate,” Montagnes said Monday. “This suit is about the underlying problem, which is the heat. Nothing has been done to ameliorate that problem of overwhelming heat.”

Added Montagnes: “We filed this lawsuit because the prison has been absolutely unwilling to work with us.”

According to that suit, Angola’s death row facility was built with federal funds in 2008. The suit also alleges that death row was equipped with air ducts that are attached to a cooling system, which is not employed for inmates’ benefit.

Death row tiers “have no climate control other than fans,” the suit alleges.

“The fans merely blow hot air into (inmates’) cells and do not function to alleviate the high humidity levels inside the tiers,” according to the suit. The suit was written by Montagnes and Elizabeth Compa, both of The Promise of Justice Initiative, New Orleans attorney Steven Scheckman, and Los Angeles attorneys Nilay U. Vora, Jessica C. Kornberg and Mitchell A. Kamin.

The suit alleges the heat index on all six death row tiers was above 103 degrees every day in August. Inmates on one tier, according to the suit, suffered through heat indexes of more than 126 degrees “on 85 days between May and August.”

The inmates asked the judge to issue an order compelling prison officials to maintain a heat index on death row of no more than 88 degrees.