BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The state of Louisiana has spent more than three years and over $1 million in taxpayer money to fight a lawsuit that claims three death row inmates are exposed to dangerous heat levels in their cells.
A possible low-tech solution costs less than $2,000 and would avoid the need to install a more expensive air conditioning system inside Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, according to court testimony Monday for the long-running litigation.
A court-appointed special master told U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson that the three inmates have been moved to new cells where cool air is piped in through a vent from a guard station. Prison officials also recently installed a plastic curtain to trap the cool air and equipped each inmate's cell with "Cajun cooler" systems, described in a court filing as an ice chest, a fan and a duct that emits cool air.
The special master, Paul Hebert, said temperatures in the inmates' new cells are now "well within a normal condition" since the state began experimenting with the new heat control measures in late June.
Jackson is ordering an independent air conditioning systems expert to inspect the inmates' new cells. He scheduled an Aug. 22 hearing for expert testimony before he decides whether the new measures could be a permanent solution.
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. Hebert said the heat indexes in the inmates' cells are "hardly approaching 80 degrees" since the prison implemented the new measures, which he described as "very effective."
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.
Although the state's attorneys dispute that the new measures should be a permanent fix, the judge expressed frustration that it has taken years for the state to employ a possible remedy that is so simple and cheap. He also noted that politicians have seemed "reluctant to make the tough decisions" that could have resolved the case long ago.
Jackson also said it was "maddening" and "very troubling" that attorneys for both sides waited weeks to inform him that they began experimenting with the new remediation measures.
"I am convinced that there were efforts to conceal information from the court," he said. "I won't ascribe reasons or motives to anyone at this point."
Mary Roper, an attorney for the state, said officials never intended to withhold information from the judge or "do something underhanded."
Before the prison implemented the new measures, the three inmates received one cold shower a day, ice chests in their cells and fans outside them. The state has argued those measures adequately protected the plaintiffs, all of whom have medical problems that can be exacerbated by the heat.
Roper suggested that the new measures shouldn't be a permanent solution, due to concerns about mold growing in the prison and rising temperatures in the guard station that pipes cool air into the inmates' cells.
Mercedes Montagnes, an attorney for the three inmates, said the conditions in their new cells are "far superior" to those in their previous cells. But she urged the judge to consider a way to continue monitoring the conditions if the case is resolved by the new measures.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press through public records requests showed the state's corrections department and attorney general's office have accrued at least $1,067,000 in expenses fighting the inmates' lawsuit. Most of the money has gone to private attorneys on both sides of the case. The state had to cover inmates' attorney fees under a settlement with Attorney General Jeff Landry's office.
A plaintiffs' expert has estimated it would cost about $225,000 to install air conditioning on death row's six tiers.
During an interview in June, state Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc said the state's refusal to install air conditioning on death row isn't politically motivated. LeBlanc said installing air conditioning there could open a "Pandora's box" and possibly force his department to make the same accommodation for many other prisoners.