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Settlement Relieves Death Row Isolation in Louisiana: Four Hours Daily Out of Cell, Five Hours Per Week in New Yard

by Jayson Hawkins

In recent years, courts have begun to recognize that extended periods of solitary confinement are detrimental to the physical and mental health of prisoners. While some prisoners are placed in segregation for disciplinary reasons, those sentenced to death are often housed in solitary for decades while awaiting execution. Condemned prisoners in Louisiana have filed lawsuits since 2013 challenging the conditions on death row. On September 28, 2021, the parties and a federal district court agreed to a settlement that dramatically improves those conditions.

Death row at the Louisiana State Prison in Angola has historically been a harsh place. When prisoners began challenging conditions there, they were confined alone in small, windowless cells for 23 hours a day, with the other hour spent shackled on the tier outside the cell or alone in what the prisoners called a “small outdoor cage resembling a dog pen.” The only way these men could interact socially was in brief greetings offered through cell doors as they were escorted down the tier.

“Physical human contact of any kind is completely prohibited,” their lawsuit noted.

That suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana in 2016 by three condemned prisoners, Marcus Hamilton, Winthrop Eaton and Michael Perry. Each had been held in solitary for over 25 years. The parties subsequently agreed to certify the entire group of about 70 death-row prisoners as a class on July 26, 2021, the same day they moved to approve a settlement they had reached the previous April. The Court will maintain jurisdiction over the agreement, and it will not terminate for at least four years or until the state Department of Corrections (DOC) is in substantial compliance with it, whichever is later.

DOC had made considerable progress on improving the isolated conditions on death row before that, beginning shortly after the suit was filed in 2017, though prison officials insist the changes were already in process and not related to the suit’s filing.

Prisoners on death row now enjoy a variety of new accommodations. They are allowed four hours out of the cell each day—two in the morning and two in the afternoon—during which time they may socialize with other prisoners on their tier, shower, use the phone or send emails. They also now are served lunch in a communal setting.

They also get five hours a week in a new outdoor yard. Betsy Ginsburg, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the Cardozo School of Law and one of the attorneys representing the prisoners, said that this accommodation was something the plaintiffs stressed.

“One of the things we heard over and over,” she said, “[was] they just wanted to feel grass under their feet, to go outside and touch grass.”

Death row prisoners will also have access to increased religious and educational programs. There will be regular group services for Catholics, non-denominational Christians, and Muslims, with the possibility for other groups. GED classes and other programs will be made available. In addition, work opportunities will be offered in the death row housing area.

Pieter Van Tol, the other attorney representing the prisoners, said he thought the changes made by DOC after the suit was filed were probably related to the action, but he now sees the prison as more on board.

“I don’t think it’s overstating things to say it’s good for everyone involved,” he said. “You know the guards on the row will tell you they like it when people are happy. When they’re happy, they tend to behave better, and it makes life easier.”

Other states have taken similar steps with their death row prisoners, often due to legal action, but the problem of extended solitary confinement on death row persists. Still Van Tol sees the Louisiana victory as a beginning.

“We see Angola as a symbol of a nationwide problem,” he said. “We have a group of people who are really suffering, but this is nationwide in scope.”

The parties to the settlement agreed to waive demand for attorney’s fees, costs or damages. See: Hamilton v. Vannoy, USDC (M.D. La.), Case No. 3:17-cv-00194-SDD-RLB.

The suit is in addition to one filed in 2013 over excessive heat on death row at the Angola prison. [See: PLN, Apr. 18, 2018.] After a lot of legal wrangling, the parties reached a settlement in 2019 that required DOC to ameliorate the intense heat conditions with the installation of fans and ice chests, which the agency had already begun to do, but the Court maintained jurisdiction for another year to enforce continued compliance. See: Ball v. LeBlanc, USDC (M.D. La.), Case No. 13-00368-BAJ-EWD.  

Additional sources: The Advocate, The Lens, New York Times

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Related legal cases

Hamilton v. Vannoy

Ball v. LeBlanc, 5th Cir., No. 17-30052