Death Row Inmates Sue Louisiana Facility for Cruel and Unusual Heat Conditions

Death row inmates spend 23 hours a day in cells so hot the cinder block walls burn when touched.

By Brentin Mock Jun 11, 2013

The heat in Louisiana has been unbearable the past few summers. So imagine what it’s been like for inmates of the "prison capital of the world" where sun heat turns prison facilities into something like ovens. 

Three inmates at the Angola Louisiana State Penitentiary in Louisiana are suing the state’s department of public safety and corrections for failing to provide relief for those suffering on death row in cells that trap heat indexed as high as 195 degrees Fahrenheit. Inmates spend 23 hours a day in these cells with little ventilation. An investigation by the Advocacy Center into death row prison conditions found that it gets so hot that prisoners sometimes sleep on the floor where it’s somewhat cooler, suffering fire ant bites in the process. The inmates’ requests for relief have been rejected by the prison officials. 

The Promise of Justice Initiative is suing on behalf of Elzie Ball, who is 60 years old and is a diabetic, Nathaniel Code, who is 57 years old and has hepatitis, and James Magee, 35 with depression. Because of their conditions they are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Heat is the number one weather-related killer according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, killing more people yearly on average than floods, tornadoes and hurricanes combined.

"The conditions on death row at Angola are horrifying, and a fundamental violation of Constitutional protections," said Mercedes Montagnes, Promise of Justice Initiative lawyer and lead attorney on the lawsuit. "There is no question that the lack of climate control puts these men in a dangerous situation. Because they are confined to these block cells, their ability to take any step to maintain their health is severely limited."

While visiting areas of the prison are air-conditioned, the cells get little more than fans that blow hot air around. The metal bars and cinder block walls of the cells meanwhile become too hot to touch. The lawsuit is asking that the temperature be controlled so that the heat index doesn’t exceed 88 degrees and that ice water be distributed to the inmates on a regular basis. 

Climate change may exacerbate these conditions if proper mitigation isn’t achieved. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, cities in North America that regularly experience heatwaves — and virtually all of Louisiana would qualify — "are expected to be further challenged by an increased number, intensity and duration of heat waves during the course of the century, with potential for adverse health impacts."

The IPCC’s special report "Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation" states that "It is virtually certain that increases in the frequency and magnitude of warm daily temperature extremes and decreases in cold extremes will occur in the 21st century at the global scale. … a 1-in-20 year hottest day is likely to become a 1-in-2 year event by the end of the 21st century in most regions, except in the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, where it islikely to become a 1-in-5 year event."

Meanwhile, 2012 was the United States’ warmest year on record, by "a wide margin." Not providing air conditioning certainly feels cruel during these unusually hot seasons.