Appeals Court Affirms that Mississippi Death Row Conditions are Unconstitutional

Affiliate: ACLU of Mississippi
June 30, 2004 12:00 am

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NEW ORLEANS-In the most comprehensive decision regarding death row conditions in the last ten years, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit has affirmed a lower court's opinion that Mississippi's death row is unconstitutional and requires improvements, the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm Holland & Knight announced today.

"We believe this decision will have far-reaching implications for thousands of other prisoners,"" said Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU's National Prison Project. ""We know that brutal prison conditions have existed on Mississippi's death row for many years. The appeals court has now affirmed that while the state may be authorized to execute death-sentenced prisoners, it may not torture prisoners to death while they are pursuing their rights to appeal their sentences.""

In a ruling issued on June 28, the appeals court ordered Mississippi prison officials to fix malfunctioning toilets that spill human waste into cells, provide fans and ice to prisoners on exceedingly hot days, stop mosquito infestations and properly treat prisoners suffering from mental illness.

The ACLU brought the challenge to the death row conditions together with the law firm Holland & Knight, which provided pro bono assistance in the case.

"Official indifference has brought the men on death row to the brink of physical and mental breakdown," said Steve Hanlon, a partner at Holland & Knight. "We applaud the court's decision for the human rights protections it affords to prisoners."

Commenting on the trial court's findings, the 5th Circuit panel wrote: ""We agree that the conditions of inadequate mental health care. . . do present a risk of serious harm to the inmates mental and physical health."" Furthermore, the court said, ""frequent exposure to the waste of other persons can certainly present health hazards that constitute a serious risk of substantial harm.""

At issue in Monday's ruling was an appeal filed by the Mississippi Department of Corrections to stop a district court order that found officials had violated "minimal standards of decency, health and well-being" because of the deplorable conditions on Mississippi's death row. The state was required to remedy those conditions under the district court's order. U.S. Magistrate Judge Jerry A. Davis ruled in May 2003 that "no matter how heinous the crime committed, there is no excuse for such living conditions " on death row.

Expert testimony presented by the ACLU's National Prison Project and Holland & Knight at trial in February 2003 described torturous conditions at Mississippi's State Penitentiary in Parchman.

"The presence of severely psychotic prisoners who foul their cells, stop up their toilets, flood the tiers with excrement, and keep other prisoners awake all night with their incessant screams and shouts," are "virtually certain to cause medical illness and destruction of mental stability and functioning," said psychiatrist Terry A. Kupers, who testified after touring Unit 32C where death row prisoners are confined.

Kupers said that conditions on the unit include solitary confinement combined with "the extremes of heat and humidity, a grossly unsanitary environment, vermin, arbitrary and punitive disciplinary policies, and inadequate health and mental health care."

Dr. Susi Vassallo, an expert in thermoregulation and a volunteer through Doctors of the World-USA's Medical Advocacy Project, visited Mississippi's death row in August 2002 and testified that the heat in the cells was "inhuman" and highly likely to cause heat stroke and other heat-related illness during the summer months. She testified that it was merely a matter of luck that no death row prisoner had yet died from the heat.

The lawsuit, Russell v. Johnson, was brought by the ACLU's National Prison Project, Holland & Knight, and civil rights attorney Robert McDuff of Jackson, MS.

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