Hot enough for you? You’ll hear that dumb question everywhere this week, but it would be a sadistic screw who asked it on Angola’s death row. The heat index there constitutes cruel and unusual punishment even while the temperature outside is normal.
So says the federal appeals court in New Orleans, though it must have choked on such a bleeding-heart opinion. What to do about it remains up in the air, however. While the appeals court agreed with trial judge Brian Jackson that three inmates who filed suit are confined in unconstitutionally hellish conditions, the relief he prescribed was deemed excessive.
Plaintiffs have just requested a rehearing, so the conundrum may be bouncing around the courts for a while yet.
This absurd spectacle is a price we pay for retaining the death penalty, but there is clearly no desire to abolish it. It wouldn’t make much difference if we did, however, because we have pretty much lost the stomach for executions. We have carried out only two this millennium, and the last one was in 2010. With the state unable to lay its hands on the drugs required to do the job, nobody else could be put to death until God knows when.
One sure way to settle the dispute over conditions would be to abolish death row. Missouri has been “mainstreaming” the condemned since 1991 and has found them no more of a threat to security than lifers, and rather less of one than parole-eligible inmates. Clearly some murderers will always be too dangerous to be integrated, but stuffing everyone under sentence of death into a small cage for years on end has little point beyond piling on the punishment.
Sure, there are such characters as might be said to deserve all the punishment that comes their way, but death row is an invitation to Eighth Amendment challenges.
When these three inmates filed suit, Jackson decreed that a heat index of 88 degrees be maintained, but the appeals court concluded that “effectively” meant air conditioning all four wings of death row, where 85 men currently await their fate, and was thus a luxury too far.
The appeals court opinion, sounding a bit like a real estate ad, notes that Louisiana built a “new state-of-the-art prison facility to house death row inmates in 2006.” It has windows that open, potable water, one fan for every two cells and an ice chest on each tier.
Inmates can help themselves to ice during the one hour a day they are allowed to leave their cells, and may at other times ask for a few cubes, provided some are available to be passed through the bars. The ice machine cannot keep pace with demand and frequently breaks down. During the period when Jackson ordered the heat index to be monitored, it reached 108 degrees, and it must have exceeded that this week.
Since all three plaintiffs have medical complaints that render them extra susceptible to heat, the appeals court found they were entitled to cooler surroundings, but not necessarily air conditioning. More fans, ice, cold drinking water and daily showers should do the trick, especially if cool air were piped from the guards’ pod to the tiers. Besides, under Jackson’s injunction, the other 82 death row denizens would get the benefit of the cooler air to which only the three plaintiffs had laid claim.
Whatever happens, if the appeals court agrees to reconsider its ruling, the need to maintain a death row in ghoulish isolation is surely open to question now that inmates may expect to spend many years, if not decades, there. They may not be any lower down the moral turpitude scale than many Angola lifers anyway, and are also similar in that they will in all likelihood die of old age there. Angola is naturally escape-proof.
Angola’s death row is such a barbarous institution, regardless of the heat index, that compelling reasons should be required to justify its existence. Those reasons are by no means obvious these days.
James Gill’s email address is email@example.com.