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Insanity On Mississippi Death Row?

After running a few laps around the exercise pen, Alan Dale Walker lies down on the cool concrete, closes his eyes and imagines he is anywhere else but on Mississippi's death row.

For Walker, convicted in 1991 of raping and killing a woman, it's one of the few opportunities to escape the screams and maniacal laughter of his fellow condemned inmates. The conditions here are so bad that some contend they are literally driving the inmates insane.

A federal lawsuit filed on behalf of six inmates by the American Civil Liberties Union says the stifling heat, filth, insects and other conditions could explain why some of those on death row are suffering from mental illness.

"I used to raise fighting chickens," Walker wrote in one of several letters he and other inmates sent to The Associated Press. "The way I had those chickens caged up makes me think about how they have me caged up here."

State Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps said the death row at the prison in Parchman shouldn't be singled out.

"I've been in this business for 23 years and I've been to many prisons throughout the U.S. Ours is no different from any other state that I've been in," Epps said.

At a hearing on the lawsuit earlier this year, James Balsamo, the director of environmental health and safety at Tulane University, said he took temperature, humidity and air volume readings in about 15 cells at Parchman last August, and found the heat index exceeded 100 degrees

Many inmates keep their windows closed to protect themselves from spiders and insects, he said, which adds to the heat and ventilation problems.

Another witness, Dr. Terry Kupers, a California psychiatrist who has written a book on prison madness, said he found several inmates with mental problems in a tour of death row last August.

"They mess up their cell, they're totally disheveled, they scream day and night, they smear feces, they throw feces and urine down the hall, they flood the tier," Kupers testified.

In a recent telephone interview, Kupers said conditions at Parchman were worse than any he's seen at death rows in six states and they directly contribute to severe emotional and mental problems.

"There were massive problems there," Kupers said. "It was a combination of extreme isolation and idleness along with very hazardous sanitation conditions that I've seen nowhere else."

He said the mental health care amounted to "warehousing" inmates and providing some with medication. He said they need true mental health care because many may never see an execution chamber.

Six people have been executed in Mississippi since 1976. Out of approximately 170 death sentences in the state since that year, about 70 have been vacated. There are now 66 men and one woman awaiting execution.

Epps said mental health care should improve when Correctional Medical Services, a St. Louis company that specializes in prison health care, begins its contract with the Mississippi prison system July 1. Among the changes will be adding four full-time psychiatrists to bolster the current part-time workers.

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