Letter: Death row heat a matter of law

Re “Heat figures in Angola lawsuit questioned,” July 7

The extreme heat at Louisiana State Penitentiary has been a long-standing problem. Yet, in this article, the author overlooks this point, as well as several other key points about the pending litigation regarding conditions on death row.

First, the piece discusses the possibility of the “outside heat index” reaching specific levels, but the lawsuit is actually about conditions inside of the death row tiers, where the prison’s own logs indicate that temperatures regularly exceed 90 degrees well into the night.

Second, the parties’ disputes regarding precise heat and humidity conditions on death row owe in part to prison officials’ refusal to allow health and safety experts to bring measuring instruments into the facility, as the Advocacy Center sought to do in September 2012. A federal judge has now ordered that measurements be taken on the death row tiers to determine the heat index, so a more-precise picture of conditions on death row seems forthcoming.

Third, the piece states that “documents filed by the state” showed that the plaintiffs “made no heat-related complaints to prison officials during the past several years.” This one-sided coverage ignores filings by the plaintiffs, including Administrative Remedy Procedure requests complaining of the excessive heat conditions and the physical symptoms they experienced in the summer of 2012.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, coverage of the dispute over the precise numbers obscures the more-important issue that this newspaper should be reporting — namely whether the temperatures or heat index, whatever the exact numbers, pose a substantial risk of heat-related illness in a manner that violates the Eighth Amendment and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Many of the men held on death row have medical conditions and disabilities.

Studies show that heat injury risk for all persons begins at levels as low as an 80-degree heat index and heat-related injury increases markedly at a 90-degree heat index. These risks to persons with disabilities are even more pronounced. The plaintiffs’ lawsuit raises important questions about the definition of cruelty, and prison officials should make every effort to determine whether they are providing an environment that is consistent with their obligations under the constitution and federal law.

Ronald Lospennato


New Orleans