In a case that could portend the future for heat-related lawsuits against sweltering Texas prisons, a federal judge has ruled that overheated cellblocks on Louisiana’s death row constitute cruel and unusual punishment and are illegal.
Thursday’s decision by Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson, in a case filed by three condemned prisoners who suffer from medical and disability issues that make them more susceptible to high heat, ordered the Louisiana Department of Corrections to come up with a plan to cool down death row at the state penitentiary in Angola to no more than 88 degrees.
Testimony showed that the conditions on Louisiana’s death row were “extreme and unsafe,” with cell bars too hot to touch, fans that “feel like blow dryers” and convicts sleeping on the floor because it was cooler than in their beds, according to news reports. Some heat-index temperatures inside the cellblock topped 109 degrees — 5 degrees higher than the life-threatening level, testimony showed.
Similar complaints have been lodged about several Texas prisons in recent years, where much higher heat-index temperatures have been recorded — up to 130 degrees, by one account. At least 14 convicts have died in recent years from overheated conditions, according to allegations in six federal lawsuits now pending in Texas.
Texas prison guards have sided with the convicts, insisting that working conditions for correctional officers are too hot. That unusual step by guards came after the American-Statesman disclosed last summer that Texas prison officials were spending $750,000 on a pig barn with heating and cooling systems, a project that angered prison workers.
Only a few of Texas’ 109 state prisons are air-conditioned, mostly medical and psychiatric units.
While Scott Medlock, an Austin attorney representing Texas convicts in the pending cases, predicted the Louisiana decision will increase pressure on Texas prison officials to install cooling units, prison officials said Friday they have no such plans at present.
“The Texas conditions are worse than what was described in the Louisiana case,” Medlock said. “The Texas conditions are awful. … This should tell Texas it needs to do the right thing to correct this problem.”
Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark said agency officials were reviewing the ruling, but had no comment.
Texas officials have estimated it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to install cooling units in Texas prisons.
Louisiana prison spokeswoman Pam LaBorde said her agency expects to appeal the court order.
In his 102-page decision, Jackson ordered the state corrections department and the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola to give him a plan by Feb. 17 that will cool the cells. Ironically, the prison’s execution chamber is air-conditioned.
Court records show the lawsuit was filed in June by the Promise of Justice Initiative, a New Orleans-based nonprofit group, on behalf of condemned killers Elzie Ball, James Magee and Nathaniel Code. All suffer from high blood pressure and other health conditions that their lawyers say are made worse by high heat — allegations similar to those in the Texas cases.
Testimony in the Louisiana case was that windows and fans are the primary sources of ventilation on Louisiana’s death row, as they are in many Texas prisons.
Lawyers for the inmates suggested the state penitentiary should add air conditioning or another type of mechanical cooling system. But prison officials argued that while the conditions might be hot, they were constitutional.
Jackson disagreed. In his decision, he noted that convicts on death row “were consistently subjected to heat indexes in the (National Weather Service’s) ‘extreme caution’ and ‘danger’ zones, which, according to the NWS, ‘may cause increasingly severe heat disorders with continued exposure or physical activity.’”
The judge found that the overheated conditions at the Louisiana prison violated the U.S. Constitution’s requirement for “humane conditions of confinement.” He also found that prison officials acted with “deliberate indifference” in not lowering the temperatures on the cellblocks.
Lance Lowry, a Texas correctional officer who is president of a Huntsville union local for correctional officers, said he hopes the ruling will prompt Texas prison officials to install cooling equipment. He said at least 92 correctional officers have sustained heat-related illnesses in the past year while working during the summer in hot prisons.
“Texas prison administrators should come to the table with plans for climate control of their facilities or face a costly legal battle the taxpayers will end up footing the bill for,” Lowry said, contending that the union has been complaining about overheated working conditions without avail for 15 years.
“Overheating in prisons is made more dangerous by cost-cutting measures. Employment screening for correctional officers is inadequate, and a physician’s examination isn’t required for applicants. … Officers are expected to work in a physically demanding environment sometimes over 12 hours a day, with heavy Kevlar vests, often in extreme heat,” he said.
Lowry said the issue is a matter of life or death, not one of comfort.
“With advances in medications, some require a patient to be in reasonably climate-controlled conditions,” he said. “Medications such as psychotropics and blood pressure medicines can lead to a person’s death under extremely hot conditions.”