A perturbed federal judge said Monday it's "maddening" that, after three years of litigation and more than $1 million in legal fees, the state may have found ways — including so-called low-tech Cajun coolers — to reduce sweltering heat indexes on Angola's death row and bring relief to several ailing condemned killers for a mere $2,000.

A baffled Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson, of Baton Rouge, said it's also disturbing the state wanted to hide from him the results of several experimental measures a court-appointed special master testified Monday represent a "potential solution" to the high heat indexes that threaten the health and safety of the three death-row inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

But an attorney for state corrections officials assured Jackson the state wasn't trying to conceal anything from him, and she added the state doesn't consider the experimental remedial measures a success because of the adverse impacts they would have on the death-row building as a whole.

Jackson scheduled another hearing for Aug. 22, when he will hear testimony from the state's and inmates' engineering and air-conditioning experts, as well as a court-appointed independent expert.            

"We are here for the health and safety of three demonstrably ill inmates," the judge reminded both sides.

For the past six weeks, state corrections officials have been experimenting with so-called "Cajun coolers" in their court-ordered quest to reduce high heat indexes on death row and bring relief to condemned murderers Elzie Ball, Nathaniel Code and James Magee, according to court documents filed Friday and court testimony Monday.

A Cajun cooler system is a combination of an ice chest, a fan and a duct that emits cool air, according to documents jointly filed by attorneys for the state and the three inmates.

"Sounds like a pretty low-tech device," Jackson said Monday during a hearing.

The Cajun coolers are being tested on a trial basis as a potential additional remedy to bring relief to the prisoners.

The state already is giving the inmates a daily cool shower, ice chests filled with ice, and extra fans as part of its court-ordered heat remediation plan.

The inmates' attorneys have argued that air conditioning is the only way to adequately lower heat indexes on death row, and at the same time reduce the prisoners' risks of heat-related illness or even death.

In the joint court filing Friday, the state's lawyers do not concede the remedial measures already in place are not satisfactory to cure the constitutional violation that Jackson and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans found when it comes to the heat on death row.

"Experimenting with additional remedial measures would allow (the state defendants) to more quickly and efficiently implement those measures — if the measures proved to be successful — should this Court and the Fifth Circuit ultimately determine that the current remedial measures implemented … are insufficient to cure the constitutional violation," the state's attorneys explained in the filing Friday.

The new experimental measures included moving Ball, Code and Magee from their current cells to cells on the unoccupied "C" tier. The cells are located at the front of tier C near the door leading into the air-conditioned portions of the death-row facility, the documents indicate.

Each inmate was provided with a Cajun cooler system, and additional sensors were installed on tier C to record temperature data.

Also, a heavy plastic freezer curtain was installed between the inmates' relocated cells and other cells on the tier, and the tier C door was modified to include an air vent grille to allow air-conditioned air into the tier.

The 5th Circuit had suggested last summer diverting cool air from the air-conditioned guard pods into the three inmates' cells as a possible remedy.

Special master Paul Hebert testified Monday the experimental measures resulted in heat indexes at the three inmates' cells on tier C "hardly approaching" 80 degrees.

In his December 2013 ruling, Jackson ordered heat indexes on death row not to exceed 88 degrees.

Hebert said the state's experimental measures "appeared to be successful," but former East Baton Rouge Parish Attorney Mary Roper, a new addition to the state's legal team, said appearances can be deceiving.

Roper argued that lowering heat indexes on the death row tier would raise heat indexes elsewhere and promote mold growth.

"This has not been a successful experiment," she told the judge.

Jackson cast doubt on Roper's assessment, calling the experimental measures "a very effective remedy at very little cost," and said he would schedule an immediate inspection of the Angola site by an independent air-conditioning expert.

"I can assure you the taxpayers of the state are very happy," the judge said, referring to the roughly $2,000 price tag that Hebert put on the state's experimental measures.

"After three years of litigation … the solution was less than $2,000," Jackson said.

With the experimental measures, the three sick inmates are now confined in "far superior" conditions than they were previously, argued Mercedes Montagnes, the inmates' lead lawyer.

Those who aren't happy, Jackson said, are the lawyers who have made more than $1 million defending the inmates' 2013 lawsuit against the state, and the politicians who refuse to make the "tough" decision to end the case.

"A remedy may have finally been achieved in this case," the judge said. "I don't understand why there is such pushback by the state. It's maddening."

Roper insisted the state's position "was never to do something underhanded."

Jackson reminded Roper that he previously found state corrections officials in contempt of court and fined them nearly $50,000 for manipulating the court-ordered collection of temperature data in the summer of 2013 by installing awnings and soaker hoses on death row.           

   

  

The Follow Joe Gyan Jr. on Twitter, @JoeGyanJr.