Judge rules heat on La.'s death row is unsafe

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.

A federal judge ruled Thursday that the steaming hot conditions on Louisiana’s death row prison constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” and ordered corrections officials to draft plans by February to cool the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to safer temperatures.

Describing the prison bars as “warm to the touch” during a summer visit, U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson required the state to ensure heat indices inside death row — how hot it actually feels — don’t exceed 88 degrees. Jackson, in a 102-page ruling, said he would appoint a special master to oversee the changes and report on the state’s progress on a weekly basis, citing the state’s “deliberate indifference to the substantial risk” posed by the searing heat.

In a stern rebuke, the judge also sanctioned the state for its “brazen attempt” to suppress the truth regarding temperatures on death row and expressed concern for the “alarming lack of candor” displayed by state attorneys. Data collected by a third-party expert this year, Jackson said, showed inmates were frequently “subjected to heat indices that are up to 20 degrees higher than the heat indices recorded outside the death row facility.”

The rulings came in response to a civil rights lawsuit — and subsequent bench trial — on behalf of three inmates who claimed the oppressive heat had exacerbated their medical conditions and violated their constitutional rights.

“I’m thrilled by it,” said Mitchell A. Kamin, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “I’m very happy for our clients that they got the relief that they are entitled to and really need.”

Warden Burl Cain declined to comment because officials had just received the ruling.

Pam Laborde, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said it was “highly likely that the department will seek relief from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals” in New Orleans.

Three death row inmates, represented by The Promise of Justice Initiative, the New Orleans nonprofit, sued state officials in federal court in June, claiming heat indices on death row had reached 172 degrees Fahrenheit last year and 195 degrees in 2011. Mercedes Montagnes, the nonprofit’s deputy director, said at the time that the conditions were “horrifying and a fundamental violation of Constitutional protections.”

The state maintained death row inmates had not suffered adverse health affects due to their conditions of confinement.

Cells inside the prison contain vents but no windows or fans. Death row has a heating system, Jackson said, but none of its wings has a cooling system that can lower temperatures during Louisiana’s seemingly unending summers.

One of the plaintiffs, James Magee, described the conditions as a “sauna” in the morning and an “oven” in the afternoon.

Another plaintiff, Elzie Ball, an inmate of 16 years who suffers from diabetes and hypertension, testified it was too hot to sleep at times, and that the conditions caused his joints to swell.

Ball said he coped with the heat “by drinking water, lying on the cell floor, creating ‘cool towels’ by wetting his towels or wrapping them in ice, and taking off his shirt,” Jackson recounted in his ruling.

“It’s conditions that no human being should be forced to live in,” said Kamin, the plaintiffs attorney.

Data collected by the third party between mid-July and early August, detected heat indices in all tiers of the death row prison that topped 104 degrees during a three-week testing period.

In Tier C, the hottest tier, “the lowest recorded temperature was 85.1 degrees while the highest recorded temperature was 92.12 degrees,” according to Jackson’s order. “In contrast, the lowest recorded heat index was 89.96 degrees, while the highest recorded heat index was 110.3 degrees, which is well within the (National Weather Service’s) ‘danger’ zone.”

To get a first-hand look at the conditions, Jackson visited Angola on an afternoon in August that happened to be cooled down by a thunderstorm. Despite the decreased temperature and overcast sky, Jackson found the mercury inside the prison to be “appreciably higher” than outside. The walls of the housing tiers, he noted, were “hot to the touch” while the bars separating the cells from the tier walkway were “very warm to the touch.”

Corrections officials had said they believed inmates finagled death row thermometers to falsely enhance temperature readings.

But Jackson determined it was state officials who were guilty of manipulation when they installed awnings and soaker hoses, amid the litigation, that polluted temperature data they were to preserve.

Cain has insisted corrections officials did not intend to thwart Jackson’s orders to preserve evidence.

“We messed up,” he told the judge earlier this year. “Our intentions were good.”

Jackson said he had little trouble determining state officials had acted in “bad faith” to modify two death row tiers that exhibited the highest temperatures and heat indices. He ordered the state to pay some attorneys’ fees and costs associated with evidentiary and discovery violations.

The judge also ordered three attorneys for the state to show cause why sanctions should not imposed on them personally. “This court simply cannot ignore defendants’ brazen attempt to ‘suppress the truth’ regarding the temperatures in the death row tiers,’ ” the ruling states.

Advocate staff writer Ben Wallace contributed to this report .