Prison chief: Refusal to cool death row isn't politics

AP News
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Posted: Jun 15, 2016 5:14 PM
Prison chief: Refusal to cool death row isn't politics

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's prisons chief said Wednesday that the state's refusal to install air conditioning on death row isn't politically motivated, even though a lawsuit over the facility's dangerous heat levels has already cost taxpayers more than $1 million.

Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc told The Associated Press that installing air conditioning on death row at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola could open a "Pandora's box" and possibly force his department to make the same accommodation for many other prisoners. LeBlanc said 23 inmates at three state prisons filed heat-related administrative complaints last year alone.

"My biggest concern is the impact on the whole system and the cost," he said, adding that his department faces a $35 million budget cut next year "as it stands right now."

"If I could wave a wand and air condition, I'd have no problem with that. Financially, I can't do it," he said.

LeBlanc was in the courtroom gallery Wednesday as a federal judge heard testimony on whether the state is adequately protecting three death-row inmates with medical problems from extreme heat and humidity levels.

The state insists its current heat remediation measures — one cold shower a day, ice chests in cells and fans outside them — are adequately protecting the three inmates who sued LeBlanc and his department three years ago.

The inmates' attorneys disagree, and they're urging U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson to reconsider requiring air conditioning on death row.

Jackson opened the hearing by saying that state officials may need to do what's unpopular, "no matter what the political implications are," to comply with his previous order to keep the heat index at or below 88 degrees on death row.

"Somebody has to step up and make a tough, courageous decision," he said.

James Hilburn, an attorney for the state, said "air conditioning is the only way that building can be climate controlled." The judge said it was the first time he's heard any state official acknowledge this.

But Hilburn also said that LeBlanc must balance the need for "protecting the public and making sure the inmates are taken care of," and argued that the judge's 88-degree standard was unprecedented.

"That ship has sailed," Jackson responded, noting that the unconstitutionality of imprisoning people in worse heat and humidity has been upheld on appeal. "You're wasting your time and energy."

"We didn't come in here to re-litigate the case," Hilburn said.

An AP report published Monday revealed that LeBlanc's department and the attorney general's office have accrued at least $1,067,000 in expenses fighting the inmates' lawsuit when it could cost roughly the same amount money — and possibly much less — to install an air conditioning system for the entire death-row facility.

Private attorneys from two law firms have billed the state more than $424,000 for their work on the case since it started in June 2013. The state also had to cover fees for inmates' attorneys, who recently received $490,000 through a settlement with Attorney General Jeff Landry's office.

A plaintiffs' expert has estimated it would cost about $225,000 — not including engineering fees or operating costs — to install air conditioning on death row's six tiers. During a hearing last month, Jackson said the state itself has indicated that it could "end this case" by installing air conditioning at a cost of approximately $1 million.

On Wednesday, Jackson said he will do his part to ensure that the case doesn't wind up costing taxpayers millions more, and said he's open to other solutions for controlling the heat and humidity on death row, where the index routinely exceeds 88 degrees and occasionally tops 100.

Last year, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals partially upheld Jackson's decision, but said any remedy should be limited to the three plaintiffs, not all 85 inmates on death row, and invited the state to provide relief without installing air conditioning.

Jackson said 14 state inmates in Texas died of heat-related causes between 2007 and 2015.

"Nobody wants that here in Louisiana," he said. "That's what this case is all about."