BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A federal judge ordered prison officials to continue using new measures — including the use of modified ice chests sometimes called "Cajun coolers" — to control dangerous heat levels for three medically vulnerable inmates on Louisiana's death row.
U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson's order Thursday stopped short of requiring the installation of air conditioning — saying low-tech remedies officials experimented with last summer have worked. Those remedies include diverting cool air from a guards' area to the inmates' cells and the use of the ice chests equipped with fans and ducting to blow cool air into the cells.
Attorneys for the state and for inmates said they were reviewing the order.
The ruling is the latest in a 2013 civil rights lawsuit filed by the Promise of Justice Initiative, a New Orleans-based nonprofit group, on behalf of condemned killers Elzie Ball, Nathaniel Code and James Magee. All three men have high blood pressure, along with other health conditions that their lawyers say the heat could make worse.
Louisiana has spent more than three years and over $1 million in taxpayer money to fight the lawsuit, according to documents The Associated Press obtained earlier this year through a public records request.
More than two years ago, the judge ruled that Louisiana imposes unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment once the heat index on death row exceeds 88 degrees.
Last year, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said any remedy should be limited to the three plaintiffs, not all 85 death row inmates, and invited the state to provide relief without installing air conditioning, which a plaintiff's expert has estimated would cost about $225,000 if installed for death row's six tiers.
Other experimental measures that Jackson ordered the state to implement are:
— Transferring the three to a specific tier of cells in hot weather.
— Using a plastic curtain to hold cool air in the cells.
— Providing the inmates with personal ice containers and fans.
In August, a court-appointed special master told Jackson temperatures in the inmates' cells were "well within a normal condition" when the state began experimenting with the new measures in June.
Kevin McGill reported from New Orleans.