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Aerial view of the offices and death row area of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angloa.

With dozens of Louisiana death row inmates awaiting executions that may never happen, the state Department of Corrections has agreed to a series of court-ordered changes to make the housing unit more humane, including communal lunches and more time outdoors.

The changes come amid a downward trend in executions nationwide — including in Louisiana, where the last one happened in 2010 — and growing agreement among experts and prison officials that long stints in solitary confinement can cause serious psychological damage.

A group of death row inmates sued the department in 2017, arguing that keeping them in solitary confinement for decades constituted cruel and unusual punishment. At the time, men on death row were forced to stay inside their tiny cells 23 hours per day. The remaining hour they could spend alone in the hallway or showers.

"There is no evidence at all that people sentenced to death exhibit worse behavior in prison," said Betsy Ginsberg, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the Cardozo School of Law. "They're not being housed this way because of their behavior, but because of the sentence given. It does seem to be more punitive than anything else."

In Louisiana, 63 men are on death row, according to DOC officials. No executions are scheduled.

When the class action lawsuit was filed, more than two-thirds of the death row population had been in solitary confinement — in windowless cells about the size of a household bathroom — for over a decade.

Their only social interaction came from walking down the tier and talking to other inmates through their cell doors, according to the lawsuit. Three days a week, the men could spend one hour isolated in a "small outdoor cage resembling a dog pen," the lawsuit says. "Physical human contact of any kind is completely prohibited."

After years of negotiations and court proceedings, the settlement deal requires the DOC to maintain a series of more humane practices already underway on death row, including communal lunches for all the inmates and an exercise yard with a basketball court and weights. A Baton Rouge federal judge signed an order Tuesday approving the agreement.

Ginsberg, one of the attorneys for the prisoners, said her team met with death row inmates several times throughout settlement negotiations. The men suggested one thing the lawyers may have otherwise overlooked.

"One of the things we heard over and over … they just wanted to feel grass under their feet, to go outside and touch grass," Ginsberg said. So prison officials repositioned the yard to include a grassy area.

According to the agreement, death row inmates will be allowed outside their cells for four hours each day to socialize with their neighbors, shower, use the phone and send emails. They also get five hours per week in the outdoor yard.

The settlement distinguishes between that area and "the smaller enclosed outdoor spaces," which the lawsuit compared to dog pens: "They have a concrete floor but are fully enclosed by a wire fence on all sides, including on the top," attorneys for the inmates wrote. "There is no shade."

Death row inmates will also get more access to religious and educational programs, including weekly group worship services and GED classes. In terms of work opportunities, the men will be allowed to "clean the tiers, pack laundry and perform multiple housekeeping chores," the settlement says.

Ginsberg said the men were overwhelmingly grateful for the changes, but they hope for more access to work assignments and job training in the future.

The plaintiffs — three convicted murderers who had been in solitary confinement for over a quarter-century when they sued — met with little resistance from corrections officials, who have repeatedly pledged their commitment to improving conditions on death row. 

"To this day, Louisiana State Penitentiary continues to look for ways to improve social interaction amongst prisoners on Death Row," department spokesman Ken Pastorick said. "In this lawsuit, DOC paid no legal fees, no damages and admitted no liability."

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Not long after the lawsuit was filed, corrections leaders started making changes, which they said were already in the works — part of a larger push to reduce highly restrictive housing assignments throughout Louisiana prisons.

In 2016, the nonprofit Vera Institute for Justice started working with Louisiana corrections officials to address the issue. Researchers found a heavy reliance on solitary confinement: 17% of inmates in Louisiana state prisons, compared to the national average of 4.5%, according to a Vera Institute report.

"Living conditions in these units are characterized by social isolation, idleness, boredom, and sensory deprivation, often for prolonged and indeterminate periods of time," the report said.

Louisiana has long held the highest incarceration rate in the country.

A 2018 study said a majority of state residents support the death penalty, but Louisiana lawmakers face little pressure to restart executions after a long hiatus. Last year marked a decade since the last execution, partly because of legal hurdles and difficulty accessing lethal injection drugs.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has repeatedly declined to share his personal views on the death penalty, and recent proposals to abolish the practice failed to win full approval from the Legislature.

Louisiana is among 27 states that still allow capital punishment, though the practice has largely declined nationwide in recent years. The state also ranks relatively high for death row exonerations compared to other states, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. Over the past several decades, 11 Louisianans have been exonerated after receiving a death sentence.

A similar settlement in 2019 ordered Louisiana corrections officials to take certain steps to control dangerous heat index values on death row, which has never been air conditioned. That was after a 2013 lawsuit, which became the subject of intense litigation for several years and ultimately resulted in additional protections like fans and ice chests. Most state prison housing units still remain without air conditioning, though officials floated the idea of using pandemic relief money to install more AC units.

Other states that allow capital punishment have taken similar steps, often the result of legal action, to improve conditions for death row prisoners.

In Missouri, death row prisoners are housed with the general population, not confined to a separate unit. South Carolina prison officials moved their death row inmates to a different facility in 2019, allowing them shared meals and job opportunities after litigation challenging an overreliance on solitary confinement. Virginia made similar changes around the same time.

Ginsberg said DOC leaders in Louisiana have demonstrated their commitment to treating death row inmates more humanely. Nonetheless, she worries about the lasting impacts of past practices.

Improving medical and psychiatric care at Angola is an obvious next step, she said. 

The same judge presiding over the death row case ruled earlier this year that state corrections officials had been "deliberately indifferent" to the medical needs of Angola inmates. The case remains ongoing.


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.