Judge to decide if death-row inmates need air conditioning

AP News
|
Posted: May 20, 2016 7:44 PM
Judge to decide if death-row inmates need air conditioning

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — As summer approaches in Louisiana, prison officials insist that ice, fans and cold showers are enough to protect death-row inmates from dangerous heat and humidity.

If not, a federal judge may order them to install air conditioning for inmates awaiting execution at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson expressed frustration Friday as he questioned why prison officials won't spend roughly $1 million to install air conditioning on death row, since the state has already spent much more to fight the matter in court. He scheduled a June 15 hearing for testimony about the effectiveness of the prison's current heat-control measures.

Jackson already has ruled it unconstitutional to keep inmates where the heat index exceeds 88 degrees. During the summer, the heat index on death row routinely soars above 100 as temperatures and humidity levels rise.

Jackson said it is "stunning" how much the state has spent defending itself for three years now against this request from three death-row inmates with medical problems. Louisiana has struggled to close repeated budget shortfalls, and yet the judge said the state may have spent tens of millions of dollars on outside attorneys and experts, heat monitoring and other costs of litigation.

"One must wonder: Is this really what the state wants to do?" he asked. "It just seems so unnecessary."

Assistant Attorney General Colin Clark told the judge he would convey his frustrations to the office of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who succeeded Republican Bobby Jindal in January.

Jackson ruled in December 2013 that extreme heat on death row violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The state appealed his order to develop a plan to keep the heat index at or below 88 degrees.

In July 2015, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the plaintiffs could get relief without air conditioning, and in response, the state crafted a new "heat remediation plan" involving cold showers, fans and ice chests for the inmates.

"We believe we're providing adequate remedies to deal with the heat index," Clark said.

But the inmates' attorneys said the plan isn't working: It's not even summer yet, and yet the heat index on death row already exceeded the 88 degree threshold on May 12.

The judge told the state's new legal team, from the office of newly elected Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican, that he has sensed "serious pushback" from them on the 88-degree threshold even though the 5th Circuit didn't overturn the standard.

"That will not be re-litigated," Jackson warned.

Louisiana's new death row facility was built just ten years ago. An engineer hired by the state said it would take nine air-conditioning units to cool all eight tiers of the building. The judge suggested a $1 million price tag for that, but the real cost could be much lower — an attorney for the state said at an earlier hearing that buying each unit would cost only a few thousand dollars.

"My sole concern is to their health and safety," Jackson said. "I cannot sit back and allow the constitutional rights of those inmates to continue to be violated."