NEW ORLEANS—U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson questions why the state has spent more than $1 million fighting to prevent air conditioning from being installed at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
In 2013, three death row inmates with medical problems filed a lawsuit against the state to get relief from the extreme heat and humidity at the prison. Currently, heat remediation measures consist of one cold shower each day, ice chests in cells and fans outside of cells.
Previously, Jackson ruled that the prison must keep the heat index at or below 88 degrees, stating it is unconstitutional to keep inmates in a building where the heat exceeds 88 degrees.
On June 15, Jackson heard testimony about the effectiveness of the measures implemented by the prison to keep prisoners cool. In April 2014, the state spent $29,000 hiring a private firm to monitor heat levels on death row, according to a report by the Associated Press. The total amount spent on the lawsuit so far is $1,067,000, and the case is still in litigation.
“Inmates spend 23 hours a day in their cell, under stifling heat and humidity," Peter Russell, managing partner with McBride & Russell Law Firm, LLC recently told the Louisiana Record. "It’s similar to the hot boxes where POWs were held in Vietnam. Louisiana’s death row looks like a throwback to the 1920s.”
Russell believes that society has “dehumanized death row inmates, but it’s not a partisan issue.” The tough-on-crime culture created the attitude that the “criminal isn’t deserving of respect.” The reality is that everyone has basic human rights, Russell said.
“The state of Louisiana needs to do the right thing," he said. "It’s just basic human dignity. The governor could order the prison to find money for the AC unit.”
The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, but Russell explained that the government has protections at both the state and federal levels.
“Judges tend to err on the side of government due to limited resources,” he said.
Some prisons in Louisiana have air conditioning and some do not, according to Russell.
The Department of Corrections (DOC) insists that the refusal to provide air conditioning isn’t political in nature. The DOC is concerned that this lawsuit could force the state to accommodate other prisoners. According to the Governor’s Executive Fiscal Budget 2016-2017, the Correction Services budget is facing a $94 million budget cut over last year. Louisiana State Penitentiary will lose $26 million from its annual budget.
Jackson is trying to find solutions to keeping prisoners cool.
Both sides have until July 11 to submit memos on other measures that could be implemented to control heat and humidity on death row. Last year, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined that any remedy should be limited to the three plaintiffs who filed the suit, not all 85 inmates who currently reside on death row.
In Texas, a federal judge just certified a class-action lawsuit for 1,400 inmates who are suing the state to install air conditioning in prisons to prevent heat-stroke deaths. In 2011, 10 Texas inmates died from heat stroke while at Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota.