A federal judge in Mississippi on Wednesday ordered the state to make wholesale changes in the way it treats death row prisoners, saying their conditions constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” and offended “contemporary concepts of decency, human dignity and precepts of civilization which we profess to possess.”
U.S. Magistrate-Judge Jerry A. Davis’ action came in response to a suit filed last year by the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. The group had asserted that inmates on death row at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman were being subjected to “profound isolation ... intolerable stench and filth ... consistent exposure to human excrement, dangerously high temperatures and humidity ... insect infestations, deprivation of basic mental health care and constant exposure to severely psychotic inmates in adjoining cells.”
Davis, a former federal prosecutor, granted the inmates virtually all the relief they sought in the lawsuit.
“No matter how heinous the crime committed, there is no excuse for such living conditions,” he wrote. “It is the duty of the state of Mississippi to meet these minimal standards of decency, health and well-being.”
Christopher Epps, Mississippi’s corrections commissioner, said he “respectfully disagreed” with parts of the ruling. He added that the state already had addressed a number of the issues in the decision and that he would seek clarification of other parts of the ruling at a meeting with Davis later this month.
There are 66 male death row inmates at Parchman -- 35 blacks and 31 whites -- who are housed in a unit called 32C, which has about 1,000 prisoners overall. (A white woman on death row is housed separately at a women’s prison.) Davis said aspects of his order applied to all the inmates in Unit 32C.
The suit was filed last year on behalf of six death row inmates -- led by Willie Russell, who has faced execution since 1987 after being convicted of killing a prison guard while serving time for armed robbery. Problems at Parchman came to the ACLU’s attention when Russell and other inmates staged a hunger strike to protest their living conditions.
Margaret Winter, the National Prison Project’s associate director, said Davis’ ruling was the broadest ever issued by a federal judge regarding death row conditions.
“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,” Winter said. Her co-counsel, attorney Steve Hanlon, said he hoped the ruling would “bring immediate relief from the appalling conditions that have existed in Unit 32C in the summertime in the Mississippi Delta.”
Davis said the state must take 10 specific steps to remedy the conditions that prompted his ruling.
Temperatures in all death row cells, the judge said, must be measured four times a day from May to September; if the temperature reaches 90 degrees, Parchman officials must provide each prisoner with a fan, ice water and a daily shower. Inmates currently get three showers a week and, according to testimony in the case, are often lacking cool water.
In addition, Davis said, the state must continue efforts to eradicate mosquitoes and provide better window screens so inmates are not faced with the choice of staying in sweltering cells or opening windows and being bitten.
Davis also ordered the state to make dramatic changes in its plumbing system so that excrement flushed from one cell does not end up in the next cell’s toilet. “Prisoners are forced to live in filth,” said Terry A. Kupers, an Oakland psychiatrist who has testified in many prison cases and who spent 14 hours at the prison in August.
According to Davis’ ruling, the state must give each death row inmate a comprehensive medical exam -- in private -- every year; inmates diagnosed with psychoses or other severe mental health illnesses also must be housed separately from the others.
Epps said he had “no problem” with the judge’s order on mental health testing. He said that the state already had hired a new medical company and that the facility would have two full-time psychiatrists starting in July.
In a report submitted to Davis, Kupers called the conditions on Unit 32C “cruel, harsh and inhumane.”
“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 [is] virtually certain to cause medical illnesses and a destruction of mental stability and functioning,” Kupers wrote.
The judge clearly heeded those observations.
“The isolation of death row, along with the inmates’ pending sentences of death and the conditions at Unit 32C, are enough to weaken even the strongest individual,” Davis wrote. “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.”
Dr. Susi Vassollo, a professor at the New York University School of Medicine who also visited the prison and testified in the case, praised the ruling as well. Vassollo, an expert on the medical effects of heat, said it was fortunate that no death row inmate had died at Parchman, given the conditions there.
“The heat index was shocking in those cells, and there was no air flow,” she said.
The judge also ordered improved cell lighting and said inmates must be provided with adequate supplies so they can clean their cells weekly. He also said death row inmates must be provided a shaded exercise area.
Davis said the state could not use “monetary considerations” as a reason for failing to comply with his order.