Sweltering heat on Louisiana’s death row poses a serious risk of harm to three condemned killers with hypertension and other ailments, and a Baton Rouge federal judge rightly ruled last year that the hot conditions amount to cruel and unusual punishment, the inmates’ attorneys have told a federal appellate court.
The prisoners’ lawyers are asking the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to affirm that portion of Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson’s ruling and his order that the state not let heat indexes exceed 88 degrees from April through October on the death-row tiers at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
The attorneys for Elzie Ball, Nathaniel Code and James Magee — who sued the state in mid-2013 — argue in documents filed at the 5th Circuit last week that the heat index on each tier topped 104 degrees at various times during a three-week, court-ordered monitoring period in the summer of 2013 and reached as high as 110 degrees.
“The uncontroverted temperature, humidity and heat index data from Angola’s death row revealed an environment that poses significant health risks to inmates who are confined to their cells for 23 hours per day,” the inmates’ attorneys contend.
In an August filing of their own at the appeals court, attorneys for the state Department of Corrections claim there is no basis in law for Jackson’s order that heat indexes on Louisiana’s death row — how hot it actually feels — not top 88 degrees.
The state’s lawyers maintain Jackson is micromanaging the maximum-security prison and urged the appellate court to reverse his ruling and order.
In their appeals court brief, the state’s attorneys argue that Jackson, “without any support whatsoever, suggests that at some point over the past decade, inmates have obtained a constitutional right to mechanical cooling.” Such a finding, those attorneys say, is “obviously based on the subjective views of the district judge.”
Not so, the inmates’ attorneys say.
“To the contrary, the district court found that confining inmates to cells for 23 hours per day with insufficient access to mitigating measures with extended heat indices over 88 degrees places inmates at substantial risk of serious harm,” lawyers for Ball, Code and Magee contend.
“Far from being ‘subjective views’ devoid of evidentiary support, the district court’s relief was fashioned based on the recommendations of experts, as well as current public health standards, correctional facility standards and other evidence of the present societal standards of decency,” the prisoners’ attorneys explain.
Jackson toured the Angola prison in the summer of 2013 and ruled in December that high heat indexes on death row violated the inmates’ constitutional rights. He ordered the state to craft a plan to cool down death row.
The judge in May approved the state’s court-mandated remediation plan — which includes adding air conditioning, providing chests filled with ice and allowing inmates once-daily cold showers — and ordered its immediate implementation.
The 5th Circuit stayed the order on June 6.
In addition to hypertension, Ball, 60, suffers from diabetes; Code, 57, from hepatitis; and Magee, 35, from high cholesterol and depression, their attorneys say.
The death-row tiers have a ventilation system that uses outside air to ventilate the tiers.
The ice that the death-row inmates can access during their hour outside their cells frequently runs out, the drinking water from their sinks is lukewarm, and they are allowed a daily shower in water ranging from 100 to 120 degrees, their attorneys claim.
The lawyers note that Louisiana mandates air conditioning in juvenile detention facilities, while neighboring Texas requires county correctional facilities to prevent temperatures above 85 degrees.
Louisiana’s attorneys argue that medical records for Ball, Code and Magee show none of the men lodged heat-related complaints over the past several years, but the prisoners’ lawyers say they complained of symptoms of heat-related illness and had high blood pressure during infirmary visits.
Magee is on death row for the 2007 shotgun murders of his estranged wife, Adrienne Magee, and their 5-year-old son, Zach, on a street in the Tall Timbers subdivision north of Mandeville. Ball was condemned to die for fatally shooting beer delivery man Ben Scorsone during the 1996 armed robbery of a Gretna lounge.
Code was sentenced to death for the 1985 murders of four people at a house in Shreveport. He drowned Vivian Chaney in her bathtub; stabbed and slashed to death Chaney’s 17-year-old daughter, Carlitha; and shot to death Vivian Chaney’s brother, Jerry Culbert, and her boyfriend, Billy Joe Harris.