Death row air conditioning rare in South

Triple-digit heat indexes experienced by three convicted murderers suing officials at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola are similar to the conditions endured by inmates on Death Row in Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

But condemned prisoners in Arkansas have air conditioning, and prison policy calls for summertime cell temperatures ranging from 74 to 78 degrees in that state, according to prison officials.

“We started putting air conditioning in our older units in the late 1970s,” said Shea Wilson, spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Corrections. Wilson said all state prisons in Arkansas now have air conditioning for all inmates.

“I’m glad to know that at least one state recognizes the need to treat prisoners like human beings,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana.

The Death Row suit was filed by the New Orleans nonprofit The Promise of Justice Initiative on behalf of three Louisiana inmates.

According to the inmates’ suit, a heat index of 195 degrees was experienced on Death Row at Angola in 2011, and an index of 172 degrees occurred last year.

Angola Warden Burl Cain testified last week that prison officials believe inmates deliberately manipulated Death Row thermometers in ways that falsely enhanced temperature readings in past years.

Cain said he does not believe the super-high heat indexes are accurate.

Temperatures recorded at Angola in July and August 2011 “consistently ranged from 88 … to 100 degrees,” according to a court filing by Mercedes Montagnes, deputy director of the New Orleans nonprofit.

Actual temperatures generally are lower than heat indexes.

This year, court-ordered monitoring by an independent company revealed heat indexes as high as 110 degrees in July and early August, according to filings by inmate attorneys.

Such temperatures and heat indexes could violate the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, according to a July 30, 2012, decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

That decision prolonged a Texas civil suit filed by inmate Eugene Blackmon, who was not on Death Row.

Blackmon complained that high temperatures at his prison represented a threat to his health because of his high blood pressure and medication that reduced his body’s ability to handle heat-related stress.

A lower-court judge had dismissed Blackmon’s case before it could be decided by a jury.

But the 5th Circuit — which rules on federal law disputes in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi — reversed that decision and returned the case to the lower court for trial.

“Allowing a prisoner to be exposed to extreme temperatures can constitute a violation of the Eighth Amendment,” the 5th Circuit said in its decision.

Blackmon’s case was not tried, however. He and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice reached an out-of-court settlement in January.

Connie Durdin, an assistant with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s public information office, said Texas’ Death Row facilities have no air conditioning and no limitation on the heat index to which inmates can be subjected.

In addition, Durdin said, Death Row officers do not maintain a temperature log.

On July 24, in Galveston federal court, relatives of three deceased Texas inmates sued the department for the inmates’ alleged heat-related deaths. The suit contends those inmates’ former “prison housing areas are like an oven.”

None of the three Texas inmates was serving time for a violent offense, according to the suit.

In their response to the suit, officials said none of the three inmates was mistreated. They denied the department “failed to provide reasonable accommodations.” The case is pending.

Death Row facilities in Mississippi also are not air conditioned, said Jasmine C. Cole, spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

“The maximum heat index allowed at both (Death Row) prisons is 85 degrees,” Cole added. “This rule is mandated by the prisons.”

But no temperature logs are maintained on Death Row in Mississippi, Cole said. Temperature logs for the men’s Death Row at Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman were discontinued in March 2012, she said.

No temperatures at the women’s Death Row at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl have been logged since a reading of 81 degrees was recorded on April 4, Cole said.

Large floor fans are used at both Death Row prisons in an effort to keep the heat index below 85 degrees, Cole added.

None of Alabama’s three Death Row prisons is air conditioned, said Brian Corbett, public information manager for the Alabama Department of Corrections.

At the Florida Department of Corrections, Deputy Communications Director Misty Cash said Death Row is not air conditioned. As in Mississippi and Louisiana, Cash said, large fans are used in an effort to mitigate the heat.

In Baton Rouge, Chief U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson is expected to rule this summer on the suit filed by the Angola inmates.

“There’s just no evidence” that Death Row temperatures are endangering the lives of inmates at Angola, Jacqueline B. Wilson, an attorney for Angola officials, told the judge last week.

The three inmates who sued Louisiana in June are Elzie Ball, 60, James C. Magee, 35, and Nathaniel Code, 57.

Magee 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.

Ball has been on Death Row since August 1997 for the fatal shooting in 1996 of beer deliveryman Ben Scorsone during the armed robbery of a lounge in Gretna.

And Code was convicted and condemned for the 1985 murders of four people at a house in Shreveport.

Jurors decided Code drowned 34-year-old Vivian Chaney in her bathtub; stabbed and slashed to death Chaney’s 17-year-old daughter, Carlitha; and shot to death Vivian Chaney’s brother, Jerry Culbert, and her boyfriend, Billy Joe Harris.