Court won't require air conditioning on La. death row

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday in the case of three prisoners who filed suit over the heat

By Kevin McGill
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana prison officials don't have to air-condition death row at the state penitentiary in Angola, but they do have to provide some relief from the heat for three condemned inmates suffering from high blood pressure and other illnesses, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday in the case of three prisoners — Elzie Ball, Nathaniel Code and James Magee — who filed suit over the heat. The appeals court sent the case back to a district judge to come up with remedies for the heat, with suggestions including increased access to ice, water and cold showers. The court also said air conditioning part of the death row facility is a possibility, although air conditioning is not a required remedy.

(Photo La. DOC)
(Photo La. DOC)

An attorney for the inmates said a decision was pending on what the next legal step would be. Mercedes Montagnes said it was important that the court found that the inmates' Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment were violated but added that remedies such as more ice and showers are insufficient.

"It's 93 degrees in Louisiana today, and that's without the heat index," she said.

A statement from the state Corrections Department said officials were reviewing the ruling. It said the state had offered to provide many of the remedies mentioned in the opinion, including individual fans, showers and increased access to ice. "However, plaintiffs' attorneys declined," the statement from spokeswoman Pam Laborde said.

The same appeals court may be ruling in another heat-related prison case soon: A panel heard arguments in February on Texas prison officials' effort to dismiss a lawsuit over the 2012 heat-related death of an inmatewith a history of high blood pressure, diabetes and other illnesses.

All three of the Louisiana inmates who filed suit suffer from high blood pressure, according to the court record. Also, Ball has diabetes and is obese; Code has hepatitis and is obese; Magee has high cholesterol.

In ruling that the inmates' Eighth Amendment protections were violated, a three-judge 5th Circuit panel cited evidence that heat indexes in the death row cell tiers reached more than 107 degrees. And they noted expert testimony that such conditions could cause serious injury to the three because of their illnesses.

But the panel rejected U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson's 2014 order that heat indexes on death row not exceed 88 degrees from April through October — an order that the appellate panel said was overly broad because it would effectively require air conditioning the entire facility where condemned inmates are held.

That goes too far, Judge Edith Jones wrote in the opinion on behalf of the panel, which also included judges Jennifer Walker Elrod and Thomas Reavley. Jackson erred in ordering what amounted to "facility-wide" relief to satisfy the needs of the three prisoners who filed suit, she wrote.

"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," Jones wrote.

Air conditioning one of four death row tiers and reserving that area for inmates in ill health was one possibility, Jones said.

Other remedies suggested in the opinion were placing the prisoners in cells closer to an air-conditioned area for prison officials and increasing the prisoners' access to water, ice and cold showers.

The court sent the case back to Jackson to come up with a suitable remedy.

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