The settlement of the class action requires time out of cells, common meals and leisure for those condemned to death

A settlement agreement was finalized this week in a class action lawsuit brought in 2017 by death row prisoners in Louisiana who accused of being held in solitary confinement – limited to one cell for 23 hours per day, without significant social interaction – for years or decades violated their constitutional and civil rights.

The terms of the agreement provide that approximately 70 death row inmates, all held at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, must be released from their cells at least four hours a day with the other prisoners from their bleachers, the possibility of have an hour long communal lunch five days a week, have at least five hours of outdoor “garden time” per week, have group worship once a week, and have access to a variety of educational classes.

The Louisiana Department of Corrections and death row attorneys said most of the conditions had already been implemented by the time Federal Judge Shelly Dick, of the U.S. District Court for the Louisiana Central District in Baton Rouge, approved the deal on Tuesday. .

In May 2017, less than two months after the prisoners filed a complaint, the DOC announced an easing of restrictions on death row inmates, including four hours of out-of-cell time per day. At the time, DOC said the policy changes were not in response to the lawsuit.

In a statement, Ken Pastorick, spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, reiterated this position, saying the “policies and programs” set out in the agreement “were already in place or under development” before the lawsuit. in 2017.

Pieter Van Tol, one of the attorneys representing death row inmates, told The Lens he believes the DOC’s policy changes are likely in response to the trial. And Betsy Ginsberg, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at Cardozo Law School, who also represented the prisoners, said the terms were developed during an ongoing discussion between the plaintiffs and the DOC. She called the implementation of the changes an “iterative process”.

“We have negotiated this over a long period of time,” she said. “And obviously, with COVID in the mix, things kind of took longer than we would have hoped. But as we negotiated various terms, they would start to implement those terms. “

She said that now, “It looks like for the most part they’re doing whatever the deal requires of them at this point.”

The terms of the agreement provide that during the four hours a day that inmates can leave their cells, they can socialize with other inmates on their floor, take a shower, and use the phone and email.

The five hours of court per week are to be in a staging setting and take place in the “larger enclosed outdoor area on death row, rather than the small enclosed outdoor areas,” the settlement agreement says. It requires that the court be equipped with a basketball hoop, weight benches and a grassed area.

“I don’t think it’s too much to say it’s good for everyone involved,” Van Tol said. “You know, the guards in the row will tell you they like it when people are happy. When they are happy they tend to behave better and that makes their life easier.

Irreversible damage

The changes are a significant departure from how things traditionally worked on death row in Angola before 2017. For decades, until the time the trial was brought, death row inmates were not allowed to no socialization with other prisoners and were locked up. their cells 23 hours a day. When they were released one after another, they could walk to the prison corridors.

“Death row inmates are forced to spend twenty-three hours a day isolated in cramped, windowless cells where they are deprived of all intellectual stimulation,” reads the trial’s initial complaint. “Physical contact is prohibited… prisoners are shackled at the ankles and their arms are restricted by a chain at the waist whenever they leave the bleachers. “

Three days a week they were left outside in small fenced cages with concrete floors.

“The outdoor enclosures look like dog cages,” says the lawsuit. “They have a concrete floor but are completely surrounded by a wire fence on all sides, including the top. There is no shade.

The prolonged use of solitary confinement, according to the trial, had caused “irreversible physical and psychological damage” to death row inmates, who over time “slowly lost their cognitive abilities and their ability to communicate effectively” and saw their pre-existing medical and medical problems. mental health conditions are deteriorating.

Still, lawyers for those on death row said they were active in shaping the settlement negotiations. For example, while the prisoners were happy to be left outside with the option to socialize and not be confined to a 10 × 10 cage, they also had suggestions on how to improve it.

“One of the things they said was ‘We really like this, but we want to feel the grass under our feet,’” Ginsberg said. “And that just wasn’t something we really thought about when we were negotiating the terms. And so we made this issue an important issue in the settlement negotiations, and were able to negotiate that they would do construction work on the yard to expand it to include a grassy area for people.

The settlement agreement requires DOC to provide counsel for the plaintiffs with records on a monthly basis and allow them to perform annual inspections. They must also inform them of any “material changes” in conditions on death row. In four years, DOC can file a motion to terminate the agreement.

Pastorick said the DOC is always open to changes regarding how death row works.

“To this day, Louisiana State Penitentiary continues to seek ways to improve social interaction between prisoners on death row,” he said. “In this lawsuit, DOC paid no legal fees, damages, and admitted no liability.”

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