It’s a place people sing the blues about: “If you go to Angola, they likely not see you no more,” warns one of the many lyrics immortalizing the fearsome reputation that the Louisiana State Penitentiary—better known by its nickname, Angola—has never managed to escape. For 113 years, the former plantation has been the isolated spot the state sends its longest-serving convicts, the closest thing to making them actually disappear. It remains the most notorious prison in the country.
Some 350 miles from Angola’s Manhattan-sized spread of compounds sits another infamous symbol of the criminal justice system: the Huntsville Unit, Texas’s 165-year-old redbrick complex. Huntsville, the last stop for male death row inmates, is a constant focal point of the national debate surrounding the death penalty, and the object of much outside fascination and scrutiny.
There’s a state line between Angola, the country’s largest maximum-security prison, and Huntsville, its busiest execution chamber. But the landscape hardly changes and they share the same humid, subtropical climate. In the summers, both get very, very hot. Inmates at Angola endure triple-digit temperatures every summer, housed in structures that lack cooling and ventilation. So do many inmates at the various units of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which is headquartered in Huntsville.
The harshness of these environments, which has led to the deaths of several Texas inmates, came to public attention after lawsuits in both states cited such conditions violations of prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights. In mid-June, Austin attorneys filed another lawsuit against TDCJ on behalf of disabled and elderly inmates who are particularly susceptible to the dangerous heat.
Three inmates on Angola’s death row were plaintiffs in a similar case last year. Months later, in December of 2013, U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson ruled in favor of the Angola plaintiffs, upholding their argument of unconstitutional conditions. If Jackson’s ruling stands in the Fifth Circuit, Louisiana will join the long, still-growing list of states that have established temperature regulations for their prisons.
Will Texas? Both TDCJ and the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections, Angola’s governing agency, fall under the Fifth Circuit’s jurisdiction—and a side-by-side comparison of the Angola lawsuit and the most recent litigation against TDCJ, filed on behalf of inmates at the Pack Unit in Navasota (“The Blues Capital of Texas”), could cause double vision. At Angola, “Because of the lack of ventilation in Plaintiff’s cells, the temperature outside, while hot, is cooler than the temperature inside the cells.” At the Pack Unit, “it is often hotter inside the housing areas than outdoor temperatures.” Angola: “Plaintiffs resort to sleeping on the hard floor…because the floor is slightly cooler than their beds.” Pack: “Inmates routinely sleep on the concrete floor because their metal bunks are warm to the touch, and the floor is marginally cooler.” In both prisons, the lawsuits note, administrative offices are air-conditioned.
There are differences. The Angola plaintiffs are inmates on death row, and they are confined to their overheated cells 23 hours a day; Pack is not a death row unit, and its inmates presumably are able to escape the temperatures when they spend time in work areas and shared spaces. But both lawsuits allege violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act.
When the Angola lawsuit was filed in June 2013, plaintiffs requested a heat index at or above 88 degrees, along with clean drinking water and ice and shower temperatures that could “reasonably provide relief.” The TDCJ lawsuit makes the same request: “Plaintiffs ask that the Court enjoin Defendants to maintain a heat index of 88 degrees or lower inside each of the Pack’s Unit housing areas.” (Eighty-eight degrees, advocates believe, is the highest temperature at which inmates can remain safe from most heat-related illnesses.) That temperature limit — the implementation of which Judge Jackson ordered immediately, but could be overturned in the pending Fifth Circuit decision — is higher than regulations in other states. The Arkansas DOC maintains temperatures between 74 and 78 degrees; in Arizona, the maximum temperature is 78 degrees; in Tennessee, 80 degrees; in North Carolina, 85.
Despite the similarities between the lawsuits, experts are cautious about making predictions. The Fifth Circuit’s familiarity with Angola’s troubles—the decades-old case of the infamous “Angola 3” has yet to be put to rest, and Angola’s warden violated a court order in the ongoing heat lawsuit—may result in a narrow decision that has little effect on TDCJ, says former federal judge Royal Furgeson, who spent fourteen years as a U.S. District Judge for Texas. The prison “has a very difficult reputation,” Furgeson says. “It’s been considered a place where maintaining appropriate standards has been challenging.” Its notoriety alone could reduce the possibility of a precedent, even though the circumstances of the lawsuits are analogous in many ways. “The courts are reluctant to get too deep in the weeds trying to supervise the prison system,” Furgeson said. “There are so many moving parts to this. You’ve got very careful judges, who are mindful of how difficult it is to administer prisons in the first place.”
But even if the upcoming decision doesn’t carry any specific implications for TDCJ, the judges that will hear the Texas lawsuits won’t be able to ignore it. “You would certainly consider the Texas cases to move forward against the backdrop of the Louisiana case,” Furgeson says. “There would be no question about that. They will parse that Fifth Circuit opinion very carefully. For [district judges], the Fifth Circuit is our bible.”
The Angola lawsuit could serve as a “persuasive authority,” a non-binding legal precedent, to the Texas judges. But despite the compelling similarities, “Louisiana is a smaller state with a different system,” says Austin attorney Jeff Edwards of Edwards Law, which, along with the Texas Civil Rights Project and the University of Texas School of Law’s Civil Rights Clinic, is leading calls for reform in the state.
Louisiana has 39,000 inmates in twelve state prisons, and Angola, the flagship of its system, is in many respects sui generis. Since its conversion from plantation to prison, Angola has stood on its own, at times seemingly in disregard of any overarching governance. More than 5,000 prisoners are guarded by officers who live on prison grounds and in the adjacent tiny town of Tunica. What began as a place of punishment for Louisiana’s unwanted has become a developed system in and of itself — from a certain perspective, a model of astonishing self-sufficiency.
TDCJ, in contrast to the Louisiana Department of Corrections, is the largest prison system in the nation. It employs 37,362 Texans, houses over 150,000 inmates, and maintains more than one hundred separate units that, while mostly concentrated in East Texas, reach as far north, south, and west as Amarillo, Edinburg, and El Paso. Its operations are very much embedded in the political, economic, and social spheres of the state.
“Every difference between Texas and Louisiana will be a potential reason that Angola will not be a precedent,” said Furgeson. “Every difference will be important, especially in a matter of high constitutional concern.”
The Angola lawsuit is currently at the briefing stage within the Fifth Circuit, and no ruling is expected until later this year. In the interim, attorneys in both states are continuing to focus on their separate cases. “There’s some sense that [the lawsuits] will contribute to each other,” says Mercedes Montagnes, a prosecuting attorney for the Angola suit. “That said, I think it’s important we keep a really individualized assessment of each.”
If a place like Angola can appear poised for change in the possibility of offering relief to its convicted murderers, surely a turning point is inevitable for the prisons of TDCJ. That both systems are under the Fifth Circuit’s jurisdiction makes the comparison even more meaningful. But at the end of the day, that is Louisiana, and this is Texas; maybe the true precedent, seen repeatedly throughout history, is that what happens at Angola stays there.