Inmates sue over solitary confinement on death row

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Inmates on Louisiana's death are confined in inhumane isolation for 23 hours a day in windowless cells "the size of an average of home bathroom," according to a lawsuit challenging the practice.

Attorneys for three death row prisoners at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola filed a class action Wednesday against prison officials, claiming the solitary confinement conditions violate the inmates' constitutional rights.

The federal lawsuit claims the conditions on death row are inhumane and jeopardize prisoners' physical and mental health. The suit asks the court to order prison officials to alleviate the conditions for all prisoners on death row at Angola.

The suit says inmates can leave their cells - one at a time, for one hour each day - to shower, use a phone and walk on their death row tier. They can go outside three times a week, but they're isolated in a "small outdoor cage resembling a dog pen," the suit adds.

"Physical human contact of any kind is completely prohibited," the suit says. "The harsh repercussions of prolonged isolation are well-known among mental health experts, physicians and human rights experts in the United States and around the world."

Ken Pastorick, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections, said the agency can't comment on pending litigation.

Last Friday, a federal appeals court revived a similar lawsuit challenging conditions on Virginia's death row.

Betsy Ginsberg, one of the lawyers for the Louisiana inmates, said some other states have far less restrictive conditions for death row inmates.

"I do think there has been some shift in how we in this country think about (solitary confinement)," said Ginsberg, director of the Cardozo Civil Rights Clinic at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York.

The three plaintiffs - Marcus Hamilton, 56; Winthrop Eaton, 52; and Michael Perry, 63 - are convicted murderers who have been in solitary confinement on death row for between 25 and 31 years. Over three-quarters of the more than 70 prisoners on death row have been in solitary confinement for at least a decade, the suit says.

Nicholas Trenticosta, a New Orleans-based attorney for the inmates, said the case is the first of its kind to challenge the solitary confinement conditions on Angola's death row.

In 2013, a different group of inmates sued over dangerous heat levels on Louisiana's death row. A federal judge ruled in their favor, ordering prison officials in December to continue using new, low-tech heat remediation measures.