None Like It Hot: Federal Judge Visits Overheated Death Row - U.S. Fifth Circuit
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None Like It Hot: Federal Judge Visits Overheated Death Row

A federal judge has visited Louisiana's death row as part of a lawsuit that alleges conditions at the prison facility are too hot to handle.

Three death row inmates filed the lawsuit in June claiming that their hypertension, as well as other medical conditions, make the overheated, poorly ventilated death row facility a hazard to their health, reports The Shreveport Times.

Will a judge's visit change the outcome of the inmates' case?

Summer in Death Row

Death row in the dead of summer in Angola, Louisiana, wouldn't be the first vacation destination for most Southerners familiar with the oppressively humid, sticky atmosphere that accompanies summer heat in most Gulf Coast states. The three petitioners in this case are no exception.

Their claim, however, has less to do with discomfort and more to do with the heat constituting cruel and unusual punishment, a Section 1983 claim that already has some traction with the Fifth Circuit.

The plaintiffs were wise enough not to sue the State of Louisiana, given the immunity that states have to Section 1983 suits. Instead, three prison administrators and the Louisiana Department of Corrections are potentially on the hook for allegedly slow-cooking their inmates.

Cruel Although Usual Heat

The complaint in Ball v. LeBlanc alleges that the death row inmates have no ventilation other than fans and windows. During the summer months, the heat and humidity inside the facility were in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's "danger" and "extreme danger" zones.

This was part of the reason U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson visited the death row cell blocks last week, in an attempt to gauge the conditions for himself, reports The Shreveport Times.

Since the three plaintiffs have hypertension, they are especially vulnerable to heat-related illnesses and injury. And while U.S. Supreme Court precedent for "humane conditions" doesn't guarantee much, the inmates hope it will at least save them from potentially dying of heat stroke.

ADA Claims

If appealing to the court's cruel and unusual punishment sensibilities isn't effective, the plaintiffs can rest on their Americans with Disabilities Act claim, as their hypertension, an eligible disability, entitles them to accommodation -- like a glass of cold water.

Prisoners have lost ADA claims against private prisons in other Circuits, but the overheated prisoners in this case have chosen the right public defendants.

Death from this kind of heat is not hypothetical. The New York Times reported on a Texan prisoner's heat-related death in 2012, so hopefully the combination of these two causes of action will entitle these three inmates and others on death row to some much-needed relief.

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