Judge: Heat on La. death row is unsafe for inmates

Photo provided by U.S. District Court -- Fans blow into cells on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Show caption
Photo provided by U.S. District Court -- Fans blow into cells on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

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 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 on 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.

Windows and fans are the primary sources of ventilation on death row. 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 while the conditions might be uncomfortable for the inmates during the hottest summer months, they were safe. They said the inmates have access to medical care and none of the three plaintiffs have ever been diagnosed with adverse heat reactions.

Jackson traveled to Angola, 60 miles north of Baton Rouge, to check out the cell blocks for himself before issuing his 102-page ruling.