As temperatures soar, judge tells Louisiana to help protect prisoners working in fields

Amid blistering summer temperatures, a federal judge ordered Louisiana to take steps to protect the health and safety of incarcerated workers toiling in the fields of a former slave plantation, saying they face “substantial risk of injury or death.” The state immediately appealed the decision.

U.S. District Court Judge Brian Jackson issued a temporary restraining order Tuesday, giving the state department of corrections seven days to provide a plan to improve conditions on the so-called Farm Line at Louisiana State Penitentiary, otherwise known as Angola.

Jackson called on the state to correct deficiencies, including inadequate shade and breaks from work and a failure to provide workers with sunscreen and other basic protections, including medical checks for those especially vulnerable to high temperatures. However, the judge stopped short of shutting down the farm line altogether when heat indexes reach 88 degrees Fahrenheit (31.1 degrees Celsius) or higher, which was what the plaintiffs had requested.

The order comes amid growing nationwide attention on prison labor, a practice that is firmly rooted in slavery and has evolved over the decades into a multibillion-dollar industry. A two-year Associated Press investigation linked some of the world’s largest and best-known companies – from Cargill and Walmart to Burger King – to Angola and other prison farms, where incarcerated workers are paid pennies an hour or nothing at all.

Men incarcerated at Angola filed a class-action lawsuit last year alleging cruel and unusual punishment and forced labor in the prison’s fields. They said they use hoes and shovels or stoop to pick crops by hand in dangerously hot temperatures as armed guards look on. If they refuse to work or fail to meet quotas, they can be sent to solitary confinement or face other punishment, according to disciplinary guidelines.

As temperatures across the state continue to rise, “dealing with the heat in Louisiana has become a matter of life and death,” Jackson wrote in his 78-page ruling. “Conditions on the Farm Line ‘create a substantial risk of injury or death.’”

Lydia Wright of The Promise of Justice Initiative, an attorney for the plaintiffs, applauded the decision.

“The farm line has caused physical and psychological harm for generations,” she told the AP, adding it is the first time a court has found the practice to be cruel and unusual punishment. “It’s an incredible moment for incarcerated people and their families.”

Ken Pastorick, a spokesman for Louisiana’s Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said the department “strongly disagrees” with the court’s overall ruling and has filed a notice of appeal with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We are still reviewing the ruling in its entirety and reserve the right to comment in more detail at a later time,” he said.


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