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Judge to visit Angola death row for heat lawsuit

Last Modified: Wednesday, August 07, 2013 5:58 PM

BATON ROUGE (AP) — A federal judge said Wednesday he will check out Louisiana's death row himself, as a three-day trial wrapped up in a lawsuit claiming three condemned inmates are forced to live in unsafe heat conditions.

U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson did not say when he would rule in the lawsuit, but he suggested a decision would come soon because of the health safety claims.

"It's important for the court to issue a ruling in the short-term, or in the near-term I should say," Jackson said.

But first, Jackson plans a visit next Monday to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola to see the death row building and the placement of the windows and fans that are the primary sources of ventilation for the inmates' cells.

Jackson didn't say when he might decide whether to sanction Warden Burl Cain for trying to cool the death row cells during a court-ordered temperature monitoring period. The judge had warned Cain a day earlier he may consider such action in a later court proceeding.

The civil rights lawsuit was filed in June by the Promise of Justice Initiative, a New Orleans-based nonprofit group, on behalf of condemned killers Elzie Ball, Nathaniel Code and James Magee. All three men have hypertension, along with other health conditions.

Lawyers for the inmates say the south Louisiana heat conditions violated their constitutional right to protection from cruel and unusual punishment and federal law requiring reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities.

Named as defendants in the case are the state's corrections secretary, wardens of the state penitentiary and its death row and the Department of Public Safety and Corrections.

Prison officials say the current conditions are safe for the inmates. They have access to medical care and none of the three plaintiffs have ever been diagnosed with adverse reactions to the heat, the officials say.

Nilay Vora, an attorney representing the inmates, said the state penitentiary should add air conditioning or another type of mechanical cooling system on death row that will keep the heat index below 88 degrees.

Vora said temperature data collected on death row by an outside contractor in recent weeks showed the heat index reaching conditions in the "extreme caution" and "danger" zones, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration standards. He said animal shelters are required to have mechanical cooling systems and temperature standards.

"Mr. Ball, Mr. Code and Mr. Magee deserve more than what is required for dogs and cats," Vora said.

Jackson said while the inmates are asking for air conditioning, other options include additional fans, more availability of ice or more opportunities for cooling showers.

Jacqueline Wilson, an attorney representing state prison officials, said lawyers for the inmates didn't prove that the condemned killers were subjected to anything more than uncomfortable conditions.

The data recorded in recent weeks showed their death row tiers never reached temperatures above 93 degrees, Wilson said.

"There has been no evidence of any extreme or cruel punishment," she said.

During the trial, Cain acknowledged he tried temporary awnings and water soakings of the concrete death row walls to cool the cells during the court-ordered temperature monitoring. He apologized to Jackson and said he wasn't trying to undermine the monitoring, but was trying to compare data from one tier of death row to another.

Jackson said Cain's actions could have damaged the data collection.

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