Advocacy Center, a New Orleans nonprofit organization, wants a court order that would require officials of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to grant center attorneys and a medical specialist access to death-row inmates and records.
Advocacy Center attorneys Miranda Tait, of Lafayette, and Ronald K. Lospennato, of New Orleans, say in a civil lawsuit that prison officials have refused to allow them to pursue prisoner reports that death-row temperatures have exceeded 100 degrees.
“The Department (of Public Safety and Corrections) has not been served officially with the lawsuit,” said Pam Laborde, communications director for the department, in an email Monday.
“Since this is a legal matter, the Department will respond appropriately to the court,” Laborde added.
“The Advocacy Center has probable cause to believe that (prison officials) are subjecting prisoners with disabilities on Death Row … to neglect and abuse,” Tait and Lospennato said in the suit.
Advocacy Center often defends the rights of Louisiana residents coping with disabilities, including mental illness.
In the civil suit filed Friday in Baton Rouge federal court against prison officials, Lospennato and Tait noted that some death-row inmates have health-related disabilities, including mental illness, heart problems, lung disease and diabetes.
The center attorneys also said they were asked by Mercedes Montagnes, an attorney for The Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans, to investigate reports she had received about alleged excessive-heat conditions on Death Row.
A suit exhibit shows Montagnes wrote Warden Burl Cain on April 30 that: “Some men have described watching the thermometer mercury rise to 105 or 108 degrees Fahrenheit during the hottest part of the day. The majority of men on Death Row have described having to sleep on the floor because of the extreme heat, even at night.”
Review of air and water temperature logs for 2011 showed that July and August temperatures on Death Row “consistently ranged from 88 … to 100 degrees,” Montagnes wrote Cain.
The death-penalty appeals attorney noted in her letter that mentally ill inmates taking psychotropic medications, those with diabetes and others taking dehydrating medications for chronic heart problems are placed at greater risk by excessive heat.
Montagnes suggested to Cain that such inmates could be held in a “medical tier that could be air conditioned.”
She added in her letter to the warden: “The other tiers on Death Row should be provided with at least one fan for each cell.”
In a letter dated July 31, Lospennato and Tait asked Cain for permission to bring Dr. Susi Vassallo, of New York University Medical School, on an Aug. 17 visit to death-row inmates. The Advocacy Center attorneys also asked for permission to bring a hydrometer to measure humidity on Death Row.
The humidity reading, combined with the actual temperature, would provide the heat index for a particular time and date on Death Row, the two attorneys said.
Lospennato and Tait also requested access to temperature records of Death Row for the period of June through September for the past three years. And they wanted the identified medical condition for every inmate housed on Death Row since June 1, 2009.
The center attorneys asked Cain for all requests by Death Row inmates for medical or mental-health services since Jan. 1, 2009, as well as all Death Row inmate grievances related to excessive heat since that date.
Prison officials notified the two attorneys on Aug. 10 that Vassallo would not be permitted to meet with Death Row inmates, the suit alleges. Permission to bring a hydrometer into the prison was denied on Aug. 13.