$1m spent to avoid cooling death row

2016-06-14 05:16


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Baton Rouge - The state of Louisiana's refusal to install air conditioning on death row has already cost taxpayers more than $1m in legal bills, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.

The state could spend roughly the same money - and possibly much less - on an air conditioning 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.

Instead, the corrections department and attorney general's office have accrued at least $1 067 000 in expenses fighting the 3-year-old lawsuit filed on behalf of three inmates with medical problems. 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 the judge said could ultimately cost many more millions of dollars.

Expert witnesses and state contractors also have received tens of thousands of dollars. A list of expenses incurred by the prison itself adds up to more than $100 000, including an April 2014 payment of nearly $29 000 to a firm that was monitoring the heat and humidity every 15 minutes.

Airing his frustrations last month, US District Judge Brian Jackson said the bill is "stunning", given the painful cuts lawmakers are making to balance the state budget. He wondered out loud whether the state's refusal to give up the fight is based on prison management concerns, politics or ideology.

"Is this really what the state wants to do?" he asked. "It just seems so unnecessary."

Jackson is scheduled to hear testimony on Wednesday on whether the state's current heat remediation measures - one cold shower a day, ice chests in their cells and fans outside - are adequately protecting the plaintiffs as Louisiana's sweltering summer approaches.

A plaintiffs' expert has estimated it would cost about $225 000 - not including engineering fees or operating costs - to install air conditioning on death row's six tiers, which house dozens of inmates.

In 2014, an engineer hired by the state said nine air-conditioning units could adequately cool all eight tiers in the 10-year-old building that houses death row. An attorney for the state has said each unit would cost "several thousand dollars".

The state hasn't made public its total estimate. Spokespersons for the corrections department and attorney general's office said they can't comment on pending litigation.

But the judge cited a state remediation plan in suggesting that the litigation is already more costly than the fix.

"The state itself indicated that they could install mechanical air, fix this problem, end this case, for about - what was it? About a million dollars," Jackson said.

Louisiana's attorneys argue that the consequences would reverberate far beyond Angola's prison walls, spawning more lawsuits from prisoners across the country demanding air-conditioned cells.

"It would be a large burden on the prisons to have to set forth the costs to implement these measures," Grant Guillot, an attorney for the state, said during an appeals court hearing last year.

One such lawsuit - filed in 2014 in Texas - claims at least 20 prisoners have died of heat-related causes in that state since 1998.

Private attorneys from two law firms have billed the state more than $424 000. Most of that has gone to a Baton Rouge firm with a law partner - E Wade Shows - who served as campaign treasurer to former attorney general James "Buddy" Caldwell, who was voted out of office last year.

That firm - Shows, Cali & Walsh - has billed 2 420 hours at an average of about $140 per hour. The firm and Shows donated a combined $20 000 to Caldwell's campaigns since 2007.

The state also had to cover fees for the inmates' attorneys, from The Promise of Justice Initiative, because Jackson ruled in their favour. Inmates' attorneys received $490 000 through a settlement with Caldwell's successor, Attorney General Jeff Landry.

This case is "another example of elected officials taking a stand as long as the taxpayers pay for it", said Bill Quigley, a Loyola University law professor who runs the New Orleans school's poverty law centre. "It's very sad, and it's a waste of money," Quigley said.

More than two years have passed since the judge ruled that Louisiana imposes unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment once the heat index exceeds 31°C.

The heat index routinely crosses that threshold on death row, and occasionally exceeds 37.7°C. Plaintiff James Magee, confined 23 hours a day in his cell, said it's like a "sauna" in the morning and an "oven" in the afternoon.

Last year, the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals partially upheld Jackson's decision, but said any remedy should be limited to the three plaintiffs, not all 85 inmates on death row, and invited the state to provide relief without installing air conditioning.

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