Saying a federal judge is micromanaging the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, state officials are asking a federal appellate court to reverse the judge’s finding that hot conditions at the prison’s death row are unconstitutional.
In a filing with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, attorneys for the state Department of Corrections argue that there is no basis in law for Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson’s order that heat indexes on death row — how hot it actually feels — not top 88 degrees from April through October.
State officials claim the judge’s December ruling and order effectively requires the state to install an “extensive and expensive” air conditioning unit or some other humidity-controlling device, something no court has ever mandated, to correct a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
“No court, including the Fifth Circuit, has ever directed a prison to implement air conditioning or any other mechanical cooling system in order to achieve an acceptable heat index in any type of correctional facility in Louisiana, Mississippi, or Texas,” the state’s attorneys note in court papers that were filed last month at the appeals court in New Orleans.
The attorneys say inmates don’t have a constitutional right to mechanical cooling. While the Eighth Amendment doesn’t permit inhumane conditions, they say, it also doesn’t mandate comfortable prisons.
Jackson toured the Angola prison last summer and ruled in December that high heat indexes on death row amounted to a violation of the inmates’ constitutional rights. He ordered the state to devise 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. But the 5th Circuit stayed the order on June 6.
During a court-ordered monitoring period last summer, the state’s attorneys say the heat index on the death-row tiers frequently ranged between 86 and 97 degrees, and rarely exceeded 99 degrees.
Louisiana’s attorney noted that a federal judge directed the Mississippi Department of Corrections a decade ago to provide fans, ice water and daily showers to death-row inmates when the heat index registered 90 degrees or above, or, alternatively, during the months of May through September and that the 5th Circuit affirmed that portion of the judge’s order.
The death-row inmates who sued the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections “currently enjoy the remedies ordered by the Fifth Circuit ... including the use of fans, access to water, access to ice, and daily showers,” the attorneys maintain.
“In fact, (they) enjoy these remedial measures at all times during the year — not just when the heat index is greater than 90 degrees or during certain months of the year,” the state’s attorneys wrote.
In their lawsuit, condemned murderers Elzie Ball, Nathaniel Code and James Magee claimed heat indexes on death row reached 172 degrees in 2012 and 195 degrees in 2011, but the state disputes those numbers.
The three inmates also contend the sweltering heat exacerbated their medical conditions and violated their constitutional rights, but the state’s attorneys take issue with that claim as well.
The state’s attorneys say medical records for Ball, Magee and Code show none of the men lodged heat-related complaints over the past several years.
“Two of the (inmates) have lived on Death Row since the opening of the facility in 2006, for more than seven years, with no heat-related conditions,” the attorneys wrote. “In fact, no inmate has ever suffered heat-related injuries at the current Death Row facility.”
The state’s attorneys say the three inmates’ medical ailments “were quite possibly caused by their own poor nutrition habits, their decisions to forego exercising despite being afforded the opportunity to do so, and their failure to properly treat their individual medical conditions.”
Ball, for example, enjoys eating honey buns and pork rinds, the state says, even though his attorneys say that he suffers from diabetes and hypertension.
Code and Magee also have hypertension, their attorneys have said.
Ball was convicted of fatally shooting beer delivery man Ben Scorsone during the 1996 armed robbery of a Gretna lounge.
Magee was found guilty in 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.
Code was condemned to die 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.