Louisiana death row: Inmates get time, daily meal together

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Louisiana is letting men on death row get together regularly for recreation, talk, worship and to share at least one of their daily meals, settling a 2017 lawsuit alleging that solitary confinement in tiny cells was inhumane.

All of the changes were made before U.S. District Judge Shelly D. Dick approved the settlement Tuesday in Baton Rouge, Betsy Ginsberg, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the Cardozo School of Law, said Wednesday.

Prison officials “have been putting the changes in place as we have come to agree on them” over the years, said Ginsberg, who is also among attorneys for the death row inmates. Attorneys signed the settlement April 9.

Louisiana is among several states where advocates challenged automatic solitary confinement for death row inmates.

Pennsylvania agreed to changes in late 2019, months after South Carolina moved its death row to a new prison where officials said inmates would be able to have jobs and to eat meals and worship together for the first time in decades. Courts found Virginia’s death row inhumane. Missouri changed its conditions under pressure from activists but without a lawsuit, and a case is pending in Florida, Ginsberg said.

Louisiana began considering changes throughout the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, including death row, in 2016, Tuesday’s settlement noted. It said groups of inmates have been allowed since May 2017 to get together on their tiers for two hours each morning and two hours each afternoon. The suit had been filed that March.

Ken Pastorick, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said there are 63 men on death row. The only woman currently sentenced to death in Louisiana is housed in another part of the prison, he said.

He added in a later email that the department was pleased to have reached a settlement without further litigation. “To this day, Louisiana State Penitentiary continues to look for ways to improve social interaction amongst prisoners on Death Row,” the statement said, adding the department paid no legal fees, no damages and admitted no liability.

Ginsberg said the men still live in cells described in the lawsuit as windowless and “the size of an average home bathroom.”

But, under the agreement, they may leave the cells, grouped in tiers of up to 16 inmates, several times a day. That includes the morning and afternoon gatherings in the tiers, at least five hours of outdoor recreation each week with other inmates on their tiers, religious services and group classes.

Before the suit was filed, each inmate’s outdoor recreation was alone in a “small outdoor cage resembling a dog pen,” the suit said. They could also leave their cells — one at a time, for one hour each day — to shower, use a phone and walk on their death row tier.

Such conditions jeopardized prisoners’ physical and mental health, the suit said.

Inmates asked for one thing the lawyers would probably never thought of on their own, Ginsberg said.

The agreement notes that the recreation yard fence was to be moved to include “a section of grass” about 48 feet (14.6 meters) by 20 feet (6.1 meters).

“One of the things we heard over and over, one of the things they really wanted was to touch grass, to feel grass beneath their feet,” said Ginsberg.