How hot is death row?

A federal judge Tuesday ordered temperature data be collected for 21 straight days in advance of an Aug. 5 trial of a lawsuit by three condemned killers who claim extreme heat indexes at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

The suit, filed last month, alleges heat indexes on death row at the prison reached 172 degrees Fahrenheit (172 °F is equal to about 77.8 °C) last year and 195 degrees (90.5) in 2011. The suit contends the heat index on all six death-row tiers was above 103 degrees every day last August, and that inmates on one tier endured heat indexes of more than 126 degrees “on 85 days between May and August.”

Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson’s order Tuesday came at the conclusion of a court hearing during which an attorney for the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections and the prison called the inmates’ data “greatly exaggerated,” “faulty” and “generally incompetent.”

A lawyer representing death-row inmates Elzie Ball, James Magee and Nathaniel Code countered that the men, each of whom suffers from hypertension, face the very real possibility of heat-related illness — including heat stroke, paralysis and heart disease — and even death.

The suit asked Jackson to issue an order compelling prison officials to maintain a heat index on death row of no more than 88 degrees.

“The court will not grant the injunction today. That is the fair and appropriate thing to do,” the judge told both sides Tuesday while noting that even death-row inmates are entitled to constitutional protections. He said more evidence on the suit’s claims needs to be gathered.

Jackson ordered the two sides to meet and file a joint plan by July 9 concerning what evidence will be collected and shared. If a plan is submitted, the judge said, he will approve it July 10. Otherwise, Jackson said he will issue his own plan on that date.

The judge specified that he wants temperature data collected for three straight weeks beginning July 15. He scheduled an evidentiary hearing, or trial, for Aug. 5. Jackson also urged the parties to try to settle the case.

Nilay Vora, an attorney for Ball, Magee and Code, argued to the judge that the air temperature at Angola’s death row is “consistently” above 90 degrees, with heat indexes even higher.

Jacqueline Wilson, an attorney for state Department of Public Safety and Corrections and the state penitentiary, noted that the death-row tiers offer industrial-sized fans — one for every two cells, ice in coolers and inmates are allowed to take one shower per day.

“There is moving air,” she said of the cross-ventilation system.

“That can be hot air,” the judge shot back.

Vora argued that blowing hot air can increase the likelihood of heat-related illness. He also alleged that the water temperature of the showers is 106 to 117 degrees, and added that the temperature range for a “cold” shower should be in the 70s.

Each death-row inmates’ cell has running hot and cold water, Wilson added.

Vora noted that 10 heat-related deaths in Texas prisons have been reported over the years.

“How about in Louisiana? How about at Angola?” Jackson asked.

Vora, who did not cite any heat-related prison deaths in the state, said the plaintiffs’ attorneys would be happy to work with the state defendants to come up with a plan to ease the heat issue at the prison’s death row.

“The department takes its job very seriously,” Wilson argued during the hearing, stressing that corrections officials want inmates to serve their sentences “in a humane way.”

Ball, 60, has been on death row since August 1997 for the May 15, 1996, shooting death of beer deliveryman Ben Scorsone during the armed robbery of a lounge in Gretna. Witnesses said Ball knocked Scorsone to the floor before firing three shots.

Magee, 35, was convicted for the April 2007 shotgun murders of his estranged wife, 28-year-old Adrienne Magee, and their 5-year-old son, Zach, on a street in the Tall Timbers subdivision north of Mandeville.

Code, 57, is on death row for the 1985 murders of four people at a house in Shreveport. A jury convicted Code for the bathtub drowning of Vivian Chaney, 34; the stabbing and slashing death of Chaney’s 17-year-old daughter, Carlitha; and the shooting deaths of Chaney’s brother, Jerry Culbert, and Chaney’s boyfriend, Billy Joe Harris.

Medical records for Ball, Magee and Code show none of the men lodged heat-related complaints over the past several years, according to documents filed by the state in response to the suit.

Records filed by the state also indicate there are 82 men on death row at Angola. Those inmates are allowed out of their cells one hour every day and are allowed to go outside for one hour three times a week. (The Advocate)

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