Photo: AP

Louisiana’s Angola prison is known as one of America’s harshest state prisons. But conditions for its death row inmates, isolated from almost all human contact, are particularly horrific. A new lawsuit says they amount to psychological torture.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of three of Angola’s death row inmates—each of whom has spent 25 years or more on death row—challenges the prison’s practice of keeping all death row inmates in solitary confinement, with no regard to their disciplinary record. The complaint lists the considerable evidence that solitary confinement has devastating consequences on human mental health. Considering the fact that our government operates prisons as part of a criminal justice system that we all have a stake in, it is worth taking a few minutes to think about how Louisiana requires these prisoners to spend decades of their lives. The lawsuit describes basic conditions on death row:

Each of the four housing sections holds two tiers of cells. The tiers are given designations A-H. Each tier contains between twelve to sixteen cells and a tier walkway. Each cell houses one prisoner. The ceiling, floor and walls of each inmate cell are made of concrete and separated from the tier by metal bars. Upon information and belief, each cell measures about eight feet by ten feet. Each cell has a combined toilet and a sink, a metal mirror, a table with a stool bolted to the floor, a metal slab as a bed that is attached to the wall and the floor and a foot locker. The Death Row facility does not have air conditioning, but rather fans on the tier that circulate hot summer air.

Approximately nine feet across from the security metal bars are translucent glass louver windows, covered in metal bars that measure approximately two feet wide by four feet tall. The windows cannot be reached by the inmates from their cells. These windows provide the only (very limited) access to natural light as there are no windows inside the cell.

Their opportunities for recreation are almost nonexistent.

Death Row prisoners are allowed out of their cell, one on each tier at a time, for only one hour each day. The one-hour time period outside their cell is not chosen by the prisoner and could be very early in the morning. During this hour, prisoners are permitted to use the phone, shower, or walk along the tier walkway where their cells are located. Additionally, three times a week, if weather permits, prisoners are allowed to use part of their hour out of their cell to go outside to the exercise pens. Only one prisoner is allowed in a pen at any given time.

Upon information and belief, there are ten outdoor pens for the Death Row inmates. The outdoor pens resemble dog cages. They have a concrete floor but are fully enclosed by a wire fence on all sides, including on the top. There is no shade. Upon information and belief, the pens measure roughly ten feet by ten feet, making the space inadequate for physical exercise for the average-sized man. There is no equipment for the prisoners to use other than a basketball and a hoop. Because the wire fence roof offers no protection from direct sunlight and the oppressive summer heat, physical exercise is effectively unavailable to prisoners for several months out of the year.

They’re allowed no hobbies and very little religion.

Similarly, Death Row prisoners’ activities are severely restricted; they are not permitted to participate in any of the wide variety of classes, clubs and trainings available to other prisoners, and they are denied access to any kind of vocational, recreational or educational programs. Because they are not permitted to participate in any programs and not allowed to work, prisoners on Death Row spend almost all of their time in their cell idle and without any mental or sensory stimulation. Death Row prisoners are not allowed to possess any arts and crafts or drawing materials.

Prisoners in the main prison have access to religious services as often as they would like. Death Row inmates, on the other hand, can participate in religious services for, at most, one hour a week. Priests and ministers from various denominations occasionally visit Death Row and perform religious services outside near the outdoor pens, regardless of the weather. Death Row prisoners attend the religious services from inside those outdoor pens. Because only one prisoner is allowed in a pen at a time, and there are only ten outdoor pens, only ten Death Row prisoners can go to a religious service at a time. Upon information and belief, the Death Row inmates are shackled at the waist during the service.

If you have any questions about whether or not such treatment does in fact inflict awful psychological damage on human beings, please do read the entire complaint.

This is the system we allow.