The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Credit: U.S. Justice Action Network

A settlement agreement was finalized this week in a class-action lawsuit brought in 2017 by prisoners on Louisiana’s death row who charged that being held in solitary confinement — restricted to a cell for 23 hours a day, with no meaningful social interaction — for years or decades violated their constitutional and civil rights. 

The terms of the agreement mandate that around 70 death row prisoners, all held at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, be let out of their cells at least four hours a day along with the other prisoners on their tier, the ability to have an hour long communal lunch five days a week, have at least five hours of outdoor “yard time” per week, group worship once a week, and access to a variety of educational courses.

The Louisiana Department of Corrections and lawyers for the death row prisoners said that most of the terms had already been implemented by the time federal Judge Shelly Dick, of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana in Baton Rouge, approved the agreement on Tuesday.

In May 2017, less than two months after prisoners filed suit, the DOC announced loosened restrictions for death row prisoners — including four hours of out-of-cell time a day. At the time, the DOC said that the policy changes were not in response to the lawsuit. 

In a statement, Ken Pastorick, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, reiterated that position, saying  that the “policies and programs” laid out in the agreement “were already in place or in development” prior to the lawsuit being brought in 2017.

Pieter Van Tol, one of the attorneys representing the death row prisoners, told The Lens that he thought  the DOC’s policy changes were likely in response to the lawsuit. And Betsy Ginsberg, Director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the Cardozo School of Law, who also represented the prisoners, said that the terms were developed during an ongoing discussion between the plaintiffs and the DOC. She called the implementation of the changes an “iterative process.”

“We negotiated this over kind of a long period of time,” she said.  “And obviously, with COVID in the mix, things just sort of took longer than then we would have hoped. But as we negotiated various terms, they would start to implement those terms.”

She said that now, “It seems like for the most part, they are doing everything that  the agreement requires of them at this point.” 

The terms of the agreement provide that during their four hours each day where prisoners are able to leave their cells, they can socialize with the other prisoners on their tier, shower, and use the phone and email. 

The five hours of yard time per week must be in a congregate setting, and take place in the “larger enclosed outdoor Death Row Yard area, rather than in the smaller enclosed outdoor spaces,” the settlement agreement says. It requires that the yard be equipped with a basketball hoop, weight benches, and a grassy area. 

“I don’t think it’s overstating things to say it’s good for everyone involved,” Van Tol said. “You know, the guards on the row will tell you that they like it when people are happy. When they’re happy, they tend to behave better, and it makes life easier.” 

Irreversible harm

The changes are a significant departure from the way things traditionally worked on death row at Angola prior to 2017.  For decades, up until the time the lawsuit was brought, prisoners on death row were not allowed any socialization with other prisoners, and were locked in their cells for 23 hours a day. When let out one at a time, they could walk to the prison halls. 

“Those on Death Row are forced to spend twenty-three hours a day isolated in cramped, windowless cells where they are deprived of any intellectual stimulation,” the initial complaint in the suit read. “Physical contact is forbidden…prisoners are shackled at the ankles and their arms are restricted by a waist chain every time they leave the tier.”

Three days a week, they were let outdoors in small, fenced-in cages with concrete floors. 

“The outdoor pens resemble dog cages,” the lawsuit read  “They have a concrete floor but are fully enclosed by a wire fence on all sides, including on the top. There is no shade.”

The extended use of solitary confinement, the lawsuit argued, had caused “irreversible physical and psychological harm” to the prisoners on death row, who over time “slowly lost their cognitive capacities and ability to communicate effectively” and saw their pre-existing medical and mental health conditions deteriorate.

Still, attorneys for the prisoners on death row said that they were active in helping craft the negotiations of the settlement. For instance, while prisoners were happy to be let outdoors with ability to socialize and not be confined to a 10×10 cage, they also had suggestions for how it could be improved. 

“One of the things they said was ‘We really like this, but we want to feel grass under our feet,’” Ginsberg said. “And that just wasn’t something that we had really given any thought to as we were negotiating the terms. And so we made that issue an important issue in the settlement negotiations, and were able to negotiate that they would do some construction on the yard to expand it to include a grassy area for people.”

The settlement agreement requires that the DOC provide the attorney for the plaintiffs with records each month, and allow them to perform yearly inspections. They also must inform them of any “material changes” to the conditions on death row. In four years, the DOC can file a motion to terminate the agreement. 

Pastorick said the DOC was still open to changes regarding how death row operates. 

“To this day, Louisiana State Penitentiary continues to look for ways to improve social interaction amongst prisoners on Death Row,” he said. “In this lawsuit, DOC paid no legal fees, no damages and admitted no liability.”

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...