By Mark Ballard
The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.
ANGOLA, La. — Ronald Marshall recalls being drained of energy every morning after picking vegetables in the unshaded fields of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. But the dorm where he lived with about 80 others was hotter than outside.
“Guys would literally miss their noon chow because the sun sucked life right out of them. They’d rather lay on the floor,” said Marshall, now with Voice of the Experienced, a New Orleans-based group that advocates for prisoner rights. “At night guys stripped down and slept on the floor.”
Leaders of penitentiaries around the South met in New Orleans this weekend and air conditioning was on the agenda for Louisiana’s top prison administrator, James LeBlanc. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Data from a recent of court case showed high heat indices in living areas for extended periods of time — between 99.5 and 102.02 degrees from 9:13 a.m. to 10:13 p.m. in one of Angola’s tiers.
Since leaving prison in October 2021, Marshall rarely finds himself in hot rooms as 95% of Southern households are air conditioned, according to a March 2022 Kent State University study. Among the last holdouts are state prisons, a condition that became particularly acute this summer of record hot temperatures — above 90 degrees for 27 days during June in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, 25 days in July.
Leaders of penitentiaries around the South met in New Orleans this weekend and air conditioning was on the agenda for Louisiana’s top prison administrator, James LeBlanc.
“These three-digit temperature days and the heat index is pretty strong evidence that we need to take a real look at what needs to be done,” said LeBlanc, secretary for the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. “Being in prison is punishment enough.”
Eleven of the 13 states without air conditioning in all their prison living areas are in the South. LeBlanc says he wants to move Louisiana off that list and has started using his department’s repair budget to install air conditioning in parts of the state’s nine prisons.
Legislators, so far, haven’t appropriated the money to air condition all living areas — a project that could cost from $28 million to $60 million. A first step was taken in the recent legislative session with a $550,000 Capital Outlay appropriation that can be used to borrow around $2 million.
LeBlanc plans to use that money to hire, within the next few weeks, engineers who would detail how much installation would cost and how much more money would be needed to pay increased utility bills.
Most of the various buildings and camps at Louisiana’s prisons were built in the 1940s and 1950s — a time when air conditioning was new and wasn’t contemplated for prisons. The buildings used materials that retain heat and have windows that will probably have to be blocked for air conditioning, he said.
Once the road map is created, LeBlanc said he’ll go to the Legislature and ask for funding to air condition a few housing facilities at a time. But years will pass before all 26,500 inmates convicted on state charges are housed in air-conditioned units.
In the meantime, Corrections is focusing on installing air conditioning in medical facilities, skilled nursing and assisted living units, where the inmates range in age from 60 to 90 years old. Work is ongoing at Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson and the penitentiary at Angola.
Heat exacerbates illnesses, such as heart disease and asthma, in older individuals, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prisoners taking medications for high blood pressure and mental health also fare poorly when it’s too hot.
The 200 beds in air-conditioned Building 4 at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, where women stayed until moved out recently, are being repurposed for elderly men needing assisted living, LeBlanc said.
Women inmates have universal air conditioning. They presently at being housed at the Jetson youth facility near Baker while the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel, which flooded, is being rebuilt.
Kitchens and cafeterias have been air conditioned, except for some of the numerous camps spread across the 18,000-acre Angola penitentiary, but work there is ongoing, LeBlanc said. Air conditioning is being installed in visiting areas and classrooms.
For those trying to sleep in the heat, LeBlanc said the prisons have installed fans and the showers stay open.
“We have water and ice on a daily basis, unlimited,” LeBlanc said. “We’re doing a lot of things to overcome the heat issue. There’s nothing better than air conditioning, no doubt about that, but it’s going to take some time and money.”
On Death Row, which was built in 2006, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court Appeals determined the state didn’t have to install air conditioning but ordered temperatures to go no higher than 88 degrees. That has led prison officials to rig a system using plastic sheets to divert some of the air conditioning from the monitoring station into the cell tiers.
That hasn’t helped that much, said Mercedes Montagnes, of the Promise of Justice Initiative in New Orleans, which filed a lawsuit in 2013 on behalf of Death Row inmates over the heat.
“The bars are hot, the walls are hot … I feel exhausted just from walking around,” Montagnes said on her drive home after visiting Angola.
In 2016, Louisiana spent over $1 million in legal bills in its attempt to avoid installing air conditioning on Death Row. Voters in Jefferson Parish approved a new jail in 2014, but only after local leaders promised there would be no air conditioning.
Gretna Rep. Joseph Marino, who as chair of the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice will have much say-so over prison air conditioning, asked: “How do you recruit anyone? Take the word prison out of it, you can’t pay enough to get someone to take job indoors without air conditioning.”
“Staffing is a real concern for us. That’s our top challenge,” LeBlanc agreed. Staff have to change uniforms two or three times a day.
Corrections has 752 vacancies out of 4,890 authorized positions and a 66% turnover rate — the highest in state government.
LeBlanc dismissed the narrative that inmates committed crimes, so shouldn’t be coddled.
“When the incarcerated are uncomfortable, hot and miserable, they are going to give you more problems than if they are comfortable and able to sleep,” LeBlanc said. “When people make those kinds of comments, they’re not thinking about the big picture.”