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Louisiana Prisoners Seek To Stop Forced Farm Labor In Extreme Heat

This week, attorneys for prisoners at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the nation's largest maximum security prison, urged a federal judge to halt the prison from operating it’s “Farm Line” — in which prisoners are forced to work in field for little to no pay — when the heat index rises above 88 degrees.   “Beginning as early as this month, temperatures on the Farm Line are expected to routinely reach or exceed safe levels, creating a serious risk of injury or death to even the healthiest of individuals and an even greater risk to those with underlying health conditions,” attorneys for the prisoners wrote in a court filing in May. On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson heard oral arguments from lawyers for the Louisiana Department of Corrections and the Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI), who represented Angola inmates, The Lens reports.  When prisoners are forced to work on the Farm Line, they are rarely given breaks or drinking water and lack necessary equipment, their lawyers said. Also, many incarcerated people have medical conditions that make them vulnerable to heat related illness — but they are not exempt from work on even the hottest days, PJI lawyers said. 

There are other hardships as well. Though other agricultural workers in Louisiana work alongside modern farming equipment, prisoners on the Farm Line are forced to “grub in the dirt with bare, ungloved hands.”  When drinking water is provided – and often it’s not – “it is dirty and full of insects; the men drink it ‘just to stay hydrated and avoid passing out,’” the filing claims.  Lawyers for the Louisiana Department of Corrections countered with a very different picture of conditions on the Farm Line, claiming that clean water and Gatorade were readily available. And when the heat index was over 88 degrees, DOC lawyers said, prisoners are forced to take a break every half an hour.  That didn’t jibe with what PJI lawyer Lydia Wright had heard from her clients. Gatorade has never been available, she said. DOC attorneys also warned that halting farm work during hot days would deprive thousands of prisoners at Angola of fresh vegetables harvested from the fields and used in prison kitchens. “An injunction would essentially let those crops rot in the field,” Andrew Blanchfield, an attorney for the prison, told the judge. Judge Jackson declined to make a ruling on Tuesday, but seemed concerned about some deprivations standard to Farm Line work, including the lack of sunscreen and shaded areas for breaks.


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