By Alan Bean
In Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas there is no air conditioning on death row. Arkansas is a blessed exception.
Those who have been following the sad saga of Herman Wallace, a prisoner at Louisiana’s Angola prison who has spent 41 years in solitary confinement, know that hellish heat is but one of the many challenges he faces.
Curtis Flowers, a death row inmate in Mississippi’s Parchman prison, has shared his own struggles with the merciless summertime heat.
Now a judge has ruled that the extreme heat afflicting inmates on Angola’s death row constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
Question: why are southern states so adamant that death row inmates should be tortured mercilessly between April and November. Is the idea to prepare them for hell? Or is it simply a way of ducking anticipated criticism from a pitiless citizenry?
Death row inmates incarcerated in unventilated cells and without access to cool water at Angola prison are being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, a federal judge in Baton Rouge ruled Thursday (Dec. 19).
In a 102-page ruling handed down six months after the suit was filed, Judge Brian A. Jackson said the high heat levels on death row at Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, violated the 8th Amendment rights of the inmates housed there.
The suit was filed on behalf of three offenders who said the extreme temperatures exposed them to a heightened risk of irreparable harm or death because of specific health issues, like high blood pressure. But Jackson said his ruling would apply to all inmates on Angola’s death row, because prison officials could “move any death row inmate to a different tier and/or cell at any time.”
“Accordingly, the court finds that a remedy aimed at ameliorating the heat conditions throughout the death row facility is necessary to adequately vindicate plaintiffs’ rights,” the ruling read. As of February 2013, there were 82 inmates housed on Angola’s death row tiers.
The defendants in the case are the Department of Public Safety and Corrections and its head, James LeBlanc; Angola Warden Burl Cain; and Assistant Warden Angelia Norwood, who oversees the death row tiers.
Jackson ordered the defendants to draw up an action plan to “reduce and maintain the heat index in the Angola death row tiers at or below 88 degrees.” The heat index takes into account both temperature and humidity levels, and is often described as “how hot it feels.”
Additionally, Jackson ordered the defendants to maintain this temperature between April 1 and Oct. 31 — the hottest months of the year in Louisiana — by monitoring and reporting the heat levels every two hours. Especially at-risk inmates must also be supplied with 24-hour access to cold water and cool showers, the ruling said.
The defendants’ action plan on how to fulfill these mandates must be submitted by Feb. 17. Plaintiffs have until March 10 to respond. By that date, the court will also have appointed a “special master” to ensure the plan is being implemented.
Corrections press secretary Pam Laborde said that the department was carefully reviewing Jackson’s ruling, but it would most likely appeal.
The suit was filed in Louisiana’s Middle District Court in Baton Rouge in June by New Orleans-based advocacy group the Promise of Justice Initiative on behalf of three convicted murderers currently housed on Angola’s death row: Elzie Ball, 60; Nathaniel Code, 57; and James Magee, 32.
All three men have high blood pressure and other health concerns they said were exacerbated by the high temperatures. The death row tiers are cooled using fans and do not have air conditioning.
During the August trial, the three plaintiffs were allowed to testify in court. Ball called the heat “indescribable” while Magee said it felt like a sauna in the morning and an oven in the afternoon. Code said he often experienced waves of dizziness and disorientation in the summer months.
Mercedes Montagnes, staff attorney for the Promise of Justice Initiative, said Thursday there was a “very positive” reaction to the ruling among her colleagues. Responding to the longer than expected period between the three-day trial and the ruling, Montagnes said she believed Jackson was “making a really considered ruling and giving everyone a fair opportunity to be heard.”
She said remedying the heat situation probably would involve installing a climate control system on the tiers. While prison officials during the trial said this would be outside of their budget to undertake, Montagnes said she thought the issue could be fixed with some “pretty minor adjustments.”
The trial was a rocky one for state and prison attorneys. At one point, Warden Burl Cain apologized after it was revealed that prison staff members had been ordered to erect awnings and spray cool water on the outside walls of the tier. Both of those actions could have irrevocably damaged temperature data the court was collecting for use in the trial.
Jackson also criticized the department for using fiscal issues as a reason for not undertaking changes to the prison’s climate controls. He reiterated this in Thursday’s ruling, saying, “Defendants’ purported financial hardships ‘can never be an
adequate justification for depriving any person of his constitutional rights.'”
Code was convicted of killing eight people, including three minors, in the mid-1980s in Shreveport. Ball killed a beer delivery man during a robbery in 1996 in Jefferson Parish. Magee was convicted in 2007 of fatally shooting his wife, Adrienne, and his 5-year-old son, Zach, near Mandeville, as well as trying to kill his two daughters.
Angola is on 18,000 acres of farmland, around 60 miles northwest of Baton Rouge. It houses 5,149 prisoners and is the state’s only maximum security prison. The prison is most commonly known for its controversial biannual prison rodeo.