Heat levels on Angola death row amount to ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ judge rules

Matt Stroud

Six months ago, prisoners at the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary (aka Angola prison) sued Louisiana prison officials in federal court, declaring that, During the summer, the bars of the cells are hot to the touch and the cinder block walls release additional heat” causing the summer air on death row to feel like it’s 195 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, drinking water was contaminated with debris” and shower water was scalding hot.” Yesterday, a judge sided with the prisoners. The 102-page ruling is here. The Times-Picayune has the story:

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.’”

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Matt Stroud is a former Innocence Network investigator who now covers the U.S. legal system, in all its glory and ugliness, as a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @ssttrroouudd. Email him at stroudjournalism<at>gmail.com.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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