Million dollar A/C: Louisiana spends over $1 million to avoid cooling death row

© Djordje Kojadinovic
Louisiana has spent $1,067,000 on legal fees fighting an order to install air conditioners for three death row inmates with health problems. The cost of installing the air conditioners would only come to about $225,000 excluding operating or engineering costs.

The state of Louisiana has fought tooth and nail to avoid installing nine air conditioning units that could cool all eight tiers in the death row building. Bill Quigley, a Loyola University law professor who runs the New Orleans school’s poverty law center, has called the battle an “example of elected officials taking a stand as long as the taxpayers pay for it,” the Associated Press reported.

US District Judge Brian Jackson called the cost of fighting the installation “stunning,” while wondering out loud, “Is this really what the state wants to do?”

“It just seems so unnecessary,” he added.

The main costs to the state can be attributed to expert witnesses and state contractors, and the prison itself has incurred numerous expenses of over $100,000, with the state of Louisiana paying one firm $29,000 to monitor the humidity and heat of the prison every 15 minutes.

Two law firms alone have billed the state for over $424,000. One firm, Shows, Cali & Walsh billed the state for 2,420 hours at an average rate of $140 per hour.

Meanwhile, an expert witness for the plaintiff estimated that installing the air conditioning on death row would cost about $225,000 – or less than a quarter of the sum already spent fighting it. The state has yet to release the total estimate to the public, but an attorney for the state said each unit would cost “several thousand dollars.”

Louisiana has defended its fight against cooling Angola prison, claiming that it would set a precedent for other prisoners to demand air conditioning.

“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 in an appeals hearing.

As averse as Louisiana may be to paying for the prisoners’ AC, it has already been two years since a judge ruled that its refusal to cool death row constitutes cruel and unusual punishment if the heat index exceeds 88 degrees Fahrenheit (31 degrees Celsius).

The heat index in death row often crosses that threshold. Plaintiff James Magee explained that he is confined to his cell for 23 hours a day and each morning he feels like he’s in a “sauna” that turns into an “oven” by the afternoon.