(CN) – Death-row inmates in Pennsylvania should not be kept in solitary confinement while awaiting resentencing after their death sentences have been vacated, the Third Circuit ruled.
Craig Williams and Shawn T. Walker both had their death sentences vacated, but they were both detained in solitary confinement on death row for years while they waited for a resentencing hearing.
Eventually, Williams and Walker were both resentenced to life in prison without parole and joined their prisons’ general populations.
Both men were convicted of first-degree murder: Williams in 1988 and Walker in 1992.
Walker was on death row for 20 years, eight of which came after he was granted a resentencing hearing. Six of Williams’ 22 years on death row came after he was granted a similar hearing.
After Walker’s death sentence was vacated, he still spent nearly 24 hours a day in a 7-by-12-foot cell without windows, according to court records.
He was only allowed to leave the cell five times a week to spend two hours to exercise in an area called the “dog cage.” However, Walker did not take advantage of this opportunity for seven years because he would have undergo a strip search each time.
Walker claimed that the isolation caused him to suffer from insomnia, emotional distress and uncontrollable body tremors.
Williams, meanwhile, was allowed out of solitary confinement for only two hours per day. However, he still had to be in a small locked cage in the prison yard, shower or law library.
Both inmates sued the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and individual officials, claiming violations of their Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process.
The corrections officers argued that the law required them to keep the inmates on death row until the new sentences were imposed.
Federal judges in Eastern and Western Pennsylvania granted summary judgment to the DOC, and Williams and Walker filed a consolidated appeal.
In an opinion written by Circuit Judge Theodore A. McKee, the Third Circuit ruled Thursday that the prisoners were deprived of due process, but the individual prison officials should not be held liable.
The judge, writing for a three-member panel, found that Williams and Walker were subjected to “atypical” and “significant” hardship in their solitary confinement on death row.
“A comprehensive meta-analysis of the existing literature on solitary confinement within and beyond the criminal justice setting found that ‘the empirical record compels an unmistakable conclusion: this experience is psychologically painful, can be traumatic and harmful, and puts many of those who have been subjected to it at risk of long-term … damage,’” McKee wrote, quoting “Regulating Prisons of the Future” by Craig Haney and Mona Lynch.
This damage can include self-mutilation and suicide, according to the ruling.
“We now hold that plaintiffs had a due process liberty interest in avoiding the extreme sensory deprivation and isolation endemic in confinement on death row after their death sentences had been vacated,” McKee wrote.
However, McKee added that the liberty interest was not “clearly established” to deprive the individual prison officials of their official immunity, so they are entitled to summary judgment.
“Our holding today that plaintiffs had a protected liberty interest provides fair and clear warning that, despite our ruling against plaintiffs, qualified immunity will not bar such claims in the future,” McKee explained. “As we have explained, scientific research and the evolving jurisprudence has made the harms of solitary confinement clear: Mental well-being and one’s sense of self are at risk.”