Solitary for Virginia Death Row Inmates Ruled Cruel & Unusual

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – The Fourth Circuit upheld a ruling Friday in favor of Virginia death row inmates, finding that their living conditions amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

In a 33-page opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge James Wynn affirmed a ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, which found that the state was “deliberately indifferent” to the physical and psychological harm caused by the state prison system’s accommodations for death row inmates.

Thomas Porter, Anthony Juniper and Mark Lawlor – death-row inmates who were housed in the state’s Sussex I State Prison about 40 miles south of Richmond – sued the state Department of Corrections in 2014.

Wynn noted that the inmates lived in 71-square-foot cells – about half the size of a standard parking space. They were allowed one hour of outdoor recreation five days a week, a ten minute shower three days a week, could have a TV and a CD player, and had access to the prison library to check out books. Their living spaces were continuously lit for safety purposes.

But it was the fact that the inmates lived in solitary confinement for 23 or 24 hours a day that the lower court found to violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, and Wynn agreed.

The judge said that, contrary to the lower court’s ruling, a “legitimate penological justification can support prolonged detention of an inmate” in solitary confinement. Wynn said that evidence in this case, however, established that the inmates’ living conditions were unconstitutional.

“In sum, the undisputed evidence established both that the challenged conditions of confinement on Virginia’s death row created a substantial risk of serious psychological and emotional harm and that state defendants were deliberately indifferent to that risk,” Wynn wrote.

He pointed to reports filed by the inmates in which they described experiencing paranoia, hallucinations, and appetite and sleep disturbances from living in solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time.  

U.S. Circuit Judge Robert King concurred.

In a dissenting opinion, U.S. Judge Paul V. Niemeyer noted that Virginia’s Department of Corrections made changes to inmates’ living conditions a year after this case was filed. He said the plaintiff inmates concede that their living conditions no longer violate their rights.

Improvements included more recreational time and access to family members. Additionally, the state spent $2 million building a new “dayroom” and an outdoor recreation yard.

Niemeyer agreed that solitary confinement was constitutionally unsound, but he questioned why the appeals court was agreeing to uphold an injunction that is now moot because of the accommodation improvements.

“It simply cannot be claimed that the district court’s award of equitable relief in 2018 was ‘necessary to correct’ a violation of a federal right when the 2015 changes had, by the plaintiffs’ own concession, already corrected the alleged violation and no new violation was in any way being threatened,” Neimeyer said.

The inmates’ attorneys and the Virginia Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to requests for comments Friday.

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