ACLU Tells Appeals Court That Inhumane Conditions on Mississippi's Death Row Must End

Affiliate: ACLU of Mississippi
November 5, 2003 12:00 am

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NEW ORLEANS – The American Civil Liberties Union today urged a federal appeals court to end the deplorable conditions on Mississippi’s death row and reinstate remedies ordered by a federal district court judge that protect prisoners from serious physical and mental illness.

“The federal district court’s courageous decision in Mississippi sought to end the dangerously high temperatures, pervasive filth, uncontrolled mosquito infestation and grossly inadequate mental health care on death row,” said Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “Every day that Mississippi prison officials allow to pass without implementing these changes leaves the men confined to death row at high risk for heat stroke and psychiatric breakdown.”

The ACLU’s oral argument today defends an order issued in May by U.S. Magistrate Jerry Davis from the Northern District of Mississippi, who said that “no matter how heinous the crime committed, there is no excuse for such living conditions” in Mississippi’s prisons. According to Judge Davis, “the isolation of Death Row, along with the inmates’ pending sentences of death and the conditions of Unit 32 C, are enough to weaken even the strongest individual.”

The ACLU said in its brief defending the decision that three death row prisoners are “extremely psychotic,” six or eight more “very psychotic,” 20 or more have very serious mental illness and at least half have significant mental illness. “These conditions actually induce psychosis. Prisoners who are not already mentally ill become mentally ill and those on the verge of illness are pushed over the edge,” the ACLU brief said.

Judge Davis’s order resulted from a case filed in July 2002 by the ACLU’s National Prison Project and the Washington law firm of Holland & Knight on behalf of the death row prisoners housed in Unit 32 of the State Penitentiary in Parchman.

Attorneys for the state appealed the decision because of objections by Department of Corrections officials that remedies like providing fans, ice water and showers on excessively hot days are unnecessary — despite expert medical testimony that failure to provide any relief during the brutally hot summer months is inhuman and likely to cause heat stroke and death.

In August, the Fifth Circuit of Appeals, which is hearing today’s case, granted the state’s appeal, but also granted the ACLU’s request for an expedited appeal of that decision.

“Mississippians are distressed not only by the Department of Corrections’ inability to meet minimal standards of decency, health and well-being in our prisons but by their claim that they shouldn’t have to,” said Nsombi Lambright, Executive Director of the ACLU of Mississippi. “Locked prison doors cannot keep out the Constitution’s protections from cruel and unusual punishment.”

Today’s oral argument will be presented by Winter of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. Fellow co-counsel in the lawsuit, Russell v. Johnson, include Steve Hanlon, a partner with Holland & Knight, Amy Fettig of the National Prison Project, and civil rights attorney Robert McDuff.

The ACLU’s appeals court brief is online at /node/35174

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