'Dangerously hot': Death row inmates still face health problems from heat years after order to cool it down _lowres

FILE - In this May 9, 2011 file photo, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is seen in West Feliciana Parish, La. U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson expressed frustration as he questioned why prison officials won't spend roughly $1 million to install air conditioning on death row, since the state has already spent much more to fight this in court. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

It's now more than three years since three death-row inmates filed suit, claiming that the summer heat put them at risk of “permanent injury, and even death.”

Their cells remain without air conditioning, and the plaintiffs — Elzie Ball, Nathaniel Code and James Magee — have had plenty of time to prove their point by keeling over. They all claimed to be suffering from maladies that death-row temperatures exacerbate, such as hypertension, obesity, hepatitis and diabetes, yet they are still with us.

Perhaps that is because death row conditions have improved somewhat as the suit bounced around the courts. Now a heat and humidity monitoring system has been installed, convicts are allowed daily cold showers, extra fans have been brought in and ice is plentiful.

That, the state assures federal Judge Brian Jackson, is enough to render death row conditions constitutional. The plaintiffs are still holding out for A/C, however.

The litigation has already cost taxpayers more than $1 million, when every tier of death row could have been air conditioned for less. Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc concedes that the numbers look dumb in the short term, but argues that the state had no choice but to resist.

Once you put a thermostat on death row, LeBlanc believes, inmates throughout the system will start hollering about the heat too, and the legal bills will mushroom. Given the Louisiana climate, it is hard to argue with that.

After the suit was filed, Jackson ordered up a report on just how hot it was on death row. Prison officials tried to skew the numbers by erecting temporary awnings and hosing down the exterior walls in the dead of night. When Jackson found out, he delivered a stern lecture, but imposed no sanctions. He concluded that the ambient air was cruel and unusual, and ordered the state to keep the death row temperature at no higher than 88 degrees. The state appealed.

The appeals court agreed that the inmates' Eight Amendment rights had been violated, but decided that Jackson had gone too far because his order required the whole of death row to be air conditioned. “Even assuming that air conditioning is an acceptable remedy here — and it is not — it is possible to provide air conditioning solely to these three inmates,” the appeals court wrote, and sent the case back to Jackson for another hearing.

In briefs submitted after that hearing, the two sides make it clear that they remain poles apart. The state maintains that everything is now pretty much hunky dory on death row, and that the various cooling measures adopted since the suit was filed have “cured the constitutional violation.”

The plaintiffs say conditions remain dangerous. The appeals court opinion, they say, did not “categorically” rule out air conditioning, although you could be forgiven for thinking that the section quoted above did so. Regardless, the plaintiffs maintain that “evolving standards of decency and medical knowledge” require air conditioning for condemned men.

Jackson, they say, had it right to begin with. “Only the First Heat Remediation Plan both remedies the underlying constitutional violation and is sufficiently narrow so as not to disrupt the effective administration of the facility.” The appeals court opined that there were “acceptable remedies short of facility-wide air conditioning,” but that is “no longer valid,” according to the plaintiffs because state has not reduced the temperature to a tolerable level.

This surely puts Jackson in a ticklish situation. If he agreed to readopt the plan already rejected by the appeals court, further litigation would presumably be inevitable, driving the legal bills into the stratosphere. Jackson has already called those bills “stunning,” and said, “Is this really what the state wants to do? It just seems so unnecessary.”

But the state has invested too much time and money in the case to abandon it now, and whatever solution Jackson devises is unlikely to sit well with both sides. Certainly air conditioning death row will be never be a popular cause, even if one of the plaintiffs should up and bolster his case by succumbing to heat stroke.