BATON ROUGE—Attorneys representing the Louisiana Department of Corrections have asked a Baton Rouge federal judge to lower the nearly $890,000 requested by the lawyers of three inmates who sued the state, claiming that the extreme heat in Louisiana State Penitentiary’s death row violated their constitutional rights.
Court documents reveal that on Dec. 16, 2015, the state’s attorneys claimed that the inmates’ attorneys’ bill is “compromised by vague entries, imprecise record-keeping, duplicative work and unreasonable time expended without adequate justification,” and asked Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson to take a closer look at the records.
“The fee issue is a distraction from what this case is all about, which is the violation of the Eighth Amendment and the suffering that my clients are still enduring,” Mercedes Montagnes, who is the lead attorney representing the three inmates, told the Louisiana Record.
In July 2014, the legal team representing Elzie Ball, Nathaniel Code and James Magee asked Jackson to order the court to pay nearly $775,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs. But after state’s attorneys challenged the billing records and alleged that the invoice contained vague and duplicate entries, Jackson ordered the prisoners’ lawyers to amend and resubmit the invoice after meeting with a special master in the case.
The total hours of work and the travel time fees were lower in the amended invoice, but the new invoice included additional work completed between July 2014 and October 2015, which raised the amount to $887,585.
In their request to the judge, the state’s attorneys questioned the number of attorneys assigned to the inmates’ case, asserting that because so many lawyers were working on the case, “the possibility of duplication of effort increases and careful scrutiny of records should follow.”
State lawyers also noted that the invoice included work done more than two years prior to the inmates’ 2013 lawsuit.
The inmates’ civil lawsuit was brought before the court by the Promise of Justice Initiative, a non-profit group based in New Orleans. The lawsuit claimed that death row inmates Ball, Code and Magee all had high blood pressure and other medical conditions that could be worsened by the heat.
The lawsuit claimed that the prison relied on windows and fans for ventilation, which the attorneys alleged provided little relief because the fans felt like “blow dryers.” The inmates’ attorneys recommended that air conditioning or another type of mechanical cooling system be used in the prison.
Prison officials argued that the conditions in the prison could be considered uncomfortable during the summer, but were not unsafe. They also stated that medical care was accessible to all inmates and that none of the plaintiffs had been diagnosed with any conditions resulting from adverse heat.
Jackson agreed with the plaintiffs and ruled that the heat conditions in the prison were unconstitutional. The state appealed the ruling and proposed a daily cool shower, personal ice chests and additional fans for the three inmates.
Over the years, there has been a series of lawsuits filed in other states on behalf of inmates seeking relief from the heat during summer, mostly in Texas.
In a 2014 lawsuit, the Texas Civil Rights Project and the University of Texas School of Law Civil Rights clinic filed a complaint on behalf of Texas prisoners. The lawsuit alleged that 12 prisoners over the course of three years had died due to extreme heat and demanded air conditioning be installed in all state facilities.
Similar conditions have been successfully challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project in Wisconsin, Arizona and Mississippi prisons.