ACLU says death row inmates should not be placed in solitary

constitutionAttorneys for the ACLU and the ACLU of Virginia filed a friend-of-the-court brief today in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on behalf of nine correctional experts, arguing that automatic solitary confinement for death row inmates is unconstitutional.

All Virginia offenders who are sentenced to death are assigned to solitary confinement for the remainder of their lives or until their sentence is overturned.  Typically, inmates serve at least six years in solitary while they pursue their appeals.

Death row prisoner Alfredo Prieto challenged Virginia’s system of automatic solitary confinement in 2012.  In November 2013, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema ruled that the system is unconstitutional.  Today’s brief supporting the decision was filed in the appeal of that ruling.

“The research is crystal clear — solitary confinement is extremely damaging to all prisoners and especially those with mental health issues,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia.   “It is cruel and unnecessary to subject any human being to years of solitary confinement with no end in sight.”

Prisoners on Virginia’s death row remain in small cells for 23 hours a day.  They have no group meals or other opportunities to talk to other inmates.  Visits are extremely limited, and take place with glass partitions between the prisoner and the visitor. All other inmates in Virginia are subject to an individualized classification system, and, in theory, are placed in solitary only if they are found to be a serious threat to institutional safety.

The experts represented by the ACLU and ACLU of Virginia, who have decades of personal experience managing diverse prison populations, agree that there is no need to consign all death row inmates to automatic and permanent solitary confinement.

“Prolonged solitary confinement has no place in any prison system,” said Gastañaga.  “If it is used, however, it must be based on an individualized evaluation of the risk posed by a particular prisoner.  It is simply arbitrary to impose this dehumanizing treatment automatically on an entire category of people.”

Click here to read the brief.


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