Court Finds "No Excuse" for Deplorable Conditions on Mississippi's Death Row, Orders Immediate Remedies

Affiliate: ACLU of Mississippi
May 21, 2003 12:00 am

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JACKSON, MS – Ruling in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, a federal magistrate judge today said that conditions on Mississippi’s death row inflict cruel and unusual punishment on the prisoners confined there and ordered the state to end its brutal practices.

Mississippi Death Row Cell

View of a mentally retarded death row prisoner’s cell showing area where shelves have been ripped off the wall and an electrical outlet is exposed.

“No matter how heinous the crime committed, there is no excuse for such living conditions,” the court said in a strongly worded ruling. “It is the duty of the State of Mississippi to meet these minimal standards of decency, health and well-being.”

Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project and lead counsel for the prisoners, welcomed the ruling. “Today’s decision upholds the basic principle that the state must not needlessly, wantonly inflict pain on any human being — not even a prisoner condemned to death.”

Steve Hanlon, a partner at the Washington law firm Holland & Knight who worked as a volunteer attorney on the case, said he hoped this ruling “would bring immediate relief from the appalling conditions that have existed in Unit 32 C in the summertime in the Mississippi Delta.”

The order, issued by U.S. Magistrate Judge Jerry A. Davis in the Northern District of Mississippi, results from a case filed last July by the ACLU’s National Prison Project and Holland & Knight on behalf of the death row prisoners housed in Unit 32 of the State Penitentiary in Parchman.

“The isolation of Death Row, along with the inmates’ pending sentences of death and the conditions at Unit 32 C, are enough to weaken even the strongest individual,” Judge Davis said. “If the state is going to exact the ultimate penalty against these inmates, then it must meet the mental health needs of each Death Row inmate and not merely warehouse them.”

The ACLU first learned of the prisoners’ complaints last year when they began a hunger strike seeking relief from the filthy, mosquito-infested and dangerously hot isolation cells in which they lived for many years while pursuing their appeals.

According to the report of expert psychiatrist Terry A. Kupers, who toured the facilities last August, “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.”

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.”

Today’s decision also addresses problems documented by environmental health and safety expert James Balsamo. Balsamo cited extreme temperatures, filth, grossly malfunctioning toilets, and mosquito infestations as major health hazards, especially during Mississippi’s brutally hot summer months. He testified that with the heat index frequently exceeding 100 degrees, and a faulty plumbing system that can leave the cells without water for hours or even days at a time, the prisoners are at high risk for heat stroke or heat death.

Dr. Susi Vassallo, an expert in thermoregulation and a volunteer through Doctors of World-USA’s Medical Advocacy Project, who visited Mississippi death row in August of last year, 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.

Sadly, Winter said, any relief in today’s case came too late for Tracy Alan Hansen. Hansen was a death row inmate on Unit 32 and a named plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit when he was executed on July 17, 2002. Requests from ACLU attorneys and Hansen’s defense attorneys to halt the scheduled execution so that he could testify in the conditions case were denied.

In many cases, the Mississippi Supreme Court eventually voided the convictions or sentences of death row prisoners, Winter noted. Of 183 death sentences imposed in Mississippi since 1976, the Mississippi Supreme Court has reversed the death penalty in 41 percent of the direct appeals it has ruled on. In fact, almost as many people have had their convictions reversed as have been executed.

Along with Winter and Hanlon, Amy Fettig of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, ACLU of Mississippi attorney Sandi Farrell and Mississippi civil rights attorney Robert McDuff served as co-counsel in the lawsuit, Russell v. Johnson.

The ACLU’s legal complaint is online at

Reports from expert witnesses are online at,, and

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