Death-Row Inmates Denied Air Conditioning

     (CN) – Officials at Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison officials must provide heat relief for three ailing death row inmates, but they do not have to install air conditioning, the Fifth Circuit ruled.
     Elzie Ball, Nathaniel Code and James Magee sued the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections and prison officials in 2013, claiming the lack of air conditioning in an Angola death row facility violated the Eighth Amendment and the Americans with Disabilities Act due to their health problems.
     The Eighth Amendment protects against cruel and unusual punishment.
     All three plaintiffs are death row inmates who suffer from hypertension. Ball also has diabetes and is obese, Code is obese and has hepatitis, and Magee has high cholesterol and suffers from depression, according to the ruling. They say the extreme summer heat worsens their conditions, causing dizziness, headaches and cramps.
     A Louisiana district court rejected the three inmates’ disability claims but sustained the Eighth Amendment allegations and issued an injunction effectively ordering the installation of air conditioning in the death row facility. The district court ruled that prison officials must keep the heat index inside at or below 88 degrees Fahrenheit.
     The New Orleans-based appeals court partly affirmed the district court this week but vacated the injunction ordering air conditioning, ruling that it is unnecessary.
     “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. As the defendants acknowledged at oral argument, plaintiffs could be placed in cells next to the officers’ pod, which are cooler than those farther down the tiers,” U.S. Circuit Judge Edith Jones wrote for a three-member panel. “Louisiana could also air condition one of the four tiers for the benefit of prisoners susceptible to heat-related illnesses. When coupled with an order not to move the plaintiffs from these cells unless certain conditions are met, these options could adequately remedy the plaintiffs’ constitutional violation.”
     The Fifth Circuit judges agreed with the lower court, however, that high heat levels in the Angola prison could constitute cruel and unusual punishment for inmates like Ball, Code and Magee.
     “Based on its finding of fact, we affirm the district court’s conclusion that housing these prisoners in very hot cells without sufficient access to heat-relief measures, while knowing that each suffers from conditions that render him extremely vulnerable to serious heat-related injury, violates the Eighth Amendment,” Jones wrote.
     The appeals court also upheld the district court’s dismissal of the prisoners’ disability claims. It conceded that the lower court used an abbreviated definition of disability and superseded case law but found that the error was harmless because there is no evidence that the three prisoners are legally disabled.
     “The overwhelming majority of the testimony [at trial] related to the future risk of heatstroke, not the prisoners’ present inability to maintain regular body temperature,” Jones wrote.
     U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Reavley dissented on one point: he said he would affirm an injunction that only orders the heat index in Angola death row tiers be kept below 88 degrees.

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