Air-conditioning system proposed for Death Row

State corrections officials on Monday proposed an air-conditioning system, once-daily cold showers and chests filled with ice to cool sweltering death row inmates at the state penitentiary at Angola.

The “heat remediation plan” filed in federal court in Baton Rouge is a direct response to Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson’s Dec. 19 order that the state draft a plan to lower searing hot heat indices inside death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Jackson ruled those heat indices amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

“We look forward to reviewing the proposed plan with mechanical experts, and are hopeful about finding a fair solution ... to alleviate these unsafe conditions in the interest of our clients’ basic safety,” said Mercedes Montagnes, lead attorney for three death-row inmates who claimed in a June lawsuit that the oppressive heat had exacerbated their medical conditions and violated their constitutional rights.

Montagnes, deputy director of The Promise of Justice Initiative in New Orleans, said any solution must comply with the Eighth Amendment — which bans cruel and unusual punishment — and the law.

The state is appealing Jackson’s ruling, saying it will affect every correctional facility in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, and not just death-row inmates.

“Inmates sentenced to hard labor are subjected to working in the heat and humidity without fans, ice, water, light clothing, etc.,” the state’s attorneys argue in documents filed Feb. 6 at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. “It would seem that the District Court may have outlawed hard labor sentences in our three states.”

The Angola inmates’ suit alleged heat indices on death row had reached 172 degrees last year and 195 degrees in 2011.

The state contends the inmates have not suffered adverse health affects due to their conditions of confinement.

Jackson, who toured the prison last summer, required the state to ensure heat indices inside death row — how hot it actually feels — don’t surpass 88 degrees.

The state’s plan, filed about an hour before Monday’s 5 p.m. deadline, calls for nine 10-ton AC units, one for each of the eight tiers and a ninth unit to be stored at the prison in case a unit fails.

Brigham Ragusa, owner of River City’s One Hour Air in Baton Rouge, said a commercial-grade AC unit can cost anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000 a ton, meaning nine 10-ton units could carry a price tag of $225,000 to $500,000.

Ragusa, who cautioned he hadn’t seen the design of the state’s plan, said the proposed HVAC — or heating, ventilation and air-conditioning — system could easily end up costing $1 million to $2 million.

The state, which hired professional engineer Frank Thompson, of Thompson Luke & Associates LLC, of Baton Rouge, to craft its plan, says the proposed HVAC system would maintain the heat index on death row at or below 88 degrees from April 1 to Oct. 31.

The temperature and humidity would be automatically monitored and recorded by a hard-wired climate monitoring system for each tier. The heat and humidity sensors would transmit their findings to the building’s existing energy management system every 15 minutes.

The tiers are now only heated and ventilated.

The state’s plan also calls for each inmate to receive one cold shower a day from April through October.

“The Court did not set a benchmark for what temperature a ‘cold’ shower would be,” the state’s filing says, noting the penitentiary follows standards established by the American Correctional Association.

“The relevant ACA standard requires that shower head water temperature range from 100 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit,” the plan says. “(Louisiana State Penitentiary) staff would just need to know what temperature or temperature range the Court requires.”

Each inmate also would receive an ice chest filled and replenished by prison staff with clean ice as needed during their regular security rounds through each tier, according to the plan.

Angola Warden Burl Cain testified in federal court in August that he “messed up” by ordering awnings installed over death-row windows and walls soaked with water amid the litigation, but insisted he did not intend to thwart Jackson’s order to preserve evidence of prison temperatures that could endanger inmates.

The judge, in his December ruling, blasted the state for its “brazen attempt” to suppress the truth regarding temperatures on death row and voiced concern for the “alarming lack of candor” displayed by state attorneys.

He ordered the state to pay some attorneys’ fees and costs associated with evidentiary and discovery violations.

Jackson also demanded three of the state’s attorneys — Wade Shows, Amy McInnis and Jacqueline Wilson — appear at a sanctions hearing March 12.

In an order filed last week, the judge said prison officials, by adding awnings and soaker hoses to certain tiers, “deliberately disregarded” his order “with the express intent of manipulating temperatures in the cells under observation.”

The state’s attorneys contend in court documents that U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Riedlinger was aware of the state’s intention to install awnings over windows of two of the death row tiers.

But in his order Thursday, Jackson said such an argument is meaningless.

“Instead of addressing their clients’ recalcitrant behavior candidly, the Shows Attorneys attempted to lay blame at Judge Riedlinger’s door, despite the fact that Judge Riedlinger lacked any authority whatsoever to alter this Court’s standing order,” he said.

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

Magee was convicted for the 2007 shotgun murders of his estranged wife, Adrienne Magee, 28, and their 5-year-old son, Zach, on a street in the Tall Timbers subdivision north of Mandeville.

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

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

He drowned Vivian Chaney, 34, 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.