La. Has Spent $1M So Far to Fight a Cooler Death Row

Experts say it could cost the same or less for AC to protect inmates from dangerous heat
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 15, 2016 6:01 PM CDT
La. Has Spent $1M So Far to Fight a Cooler Death Row
The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in 2011.   (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

The state of Louisiana's refusal to install air conditioning on death row has already cost taxpayers at least $1,067,000 in expenses fighting a lawsuit filed on behalf of three inmates with medical problems, according to records obtained by the AP. Meanwhile the state could spend roughly the same money—and possibly much less—on an AC system that would satisfy a federal judge's order to protect death row inmates from dangerous heat and humidity inside Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. This tally, based on state documents provided in response to the AP's public records requests, is the first public accounting of how much the case has cost taxpayers. Most of the money has gone to private attorneys on opposing sides of the case, which US District Judge Brian Jackson says could ultimately cost many more millions of dollars, and expert witnesses and state contractors also have received tens of thousands of dollars.

More than two years have passed since Jackson ruled Louisiana imposes unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment once the heat index exceeds 88 degrees. The index routinely crosses that threshold on death row, occasionally exceeding 100 degrees; plaintiff James Magee said it's like a "sauna" in the morning and an "oven" in the afternoon. A plaintiffs' expert estimated it would cost about $225,000—sans engineering fees or operating costs—to install AC on death row's six tiers. A state engineer in 2014 said nine AC units could cool all eight tiers in the 10-year-old building that holds death row, with a state attorney saying each unit would cost "several thousand dollars." State attorneys argue installing AC would spawn more suits from prisoners nationwide demanding cooler cells. Jackson is set to hear testimony Wednesday on whether the state's current heat remediation measures—one cold shower a day, ice chests in the cells, and fans outside—are adequately protecting the plaintiffs as Louisiana's sweltering summer approaches. (Read more Louisiana stories.)

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