July 8, 2015 / 7:00 PM / 5 years ago

Air conditioning not a must on Louisiana death row: appeals court

(Reuters) - A federal appeals court said Louisiana is not required to install air conditioning on death row in its main state prison, but violated three death row inmates’ constitutional rights by subjecting them to extreme heat that regularly topped 100 degrees (38 Celsius) in the summer.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans said a lower court judge abused his discretion in requiring Louisiana to keep the heat index, which combines temperature and humidity, below 88 degrees (31 Celsius) for the dozens of death row inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.

In overturning that injunction on Wednesday, Circuit Judge Edith Jones said Louisiana need provide relief only to death row inmates Elzie Ball, Nathaniel Code and James Magee, who brought the lawsuit and whose living conditions violated the Eighth Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment.

“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,” such as by moving them near the officers’ pod which has cooler air, Jones wrote for a 3-0 panel.

Any other remedies such as increased access to water, ice and cold showers “ought to (and must) be tailored to these three prisoners,” she added.

Ball suffers from diabetes and obesity, Code from hepatitis and obesity, and Magee from high cholesterol and depression, and all three have hypertension, court papers show. Death row inmates at Angola spend 23 hours a day in their cells.

State officials last year developed a plan to cool Angola’s death row under the injunction issued by Chief Judge Brian Jackson of the Baton Rouge federal court.

Jackson approved that plan in May 2014, but the 5th Circuit put it on hold. The inmates’ case now returns to Jackson.

Mercedes Montagnes, a lawyer for The Promise of Justice Initiative, a nonprofit representing the inmates, said narrowing the injunction “ignores the realities of administering a prison, though she welcomed the finding of Eighth Amendment violations.

“People are baking inside these prisons,” she said in a phone interview.

In a statement, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections said Wednesday’s decision affirms that “providing air conditioning to offenders on death row goes far beyond constitutional mandates and established case law.”

Known as the “Alcatraz of the South,” the Angola complex is one of the largest U.S. maximum security prisons, and according to state records recently housed more than 5,300 inmates.

The case is Ball et al v. LeBlanc et al, 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 14-30067.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Richard Chang and Leslie Adler

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