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High court turns away challenge to long-term solitary confinement

The prisoner who filed the appeal spent nearly three decades in cells the size of a compact parking space.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court turned down an opportunity Monday to determine whether long-term solitary confinement counts as a cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment, rejecting the case of an inmate who was held in isolation for 27 years.

The high court will not hear Dennis Wayne Hope's appeal of the Fifth Circuit's decision to dismiss his challenges to various aspects of his imprisonment in solitary confinement under the First, Eighth and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The justices did not provide a reason for denying the case. 

"We are disappointed that the Supreme Court did not take up this case," attorney Easha Anand of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, representing Hope, said in a statement. "Hundreds of people in Texas alone have spent double-digit numbers of years in solitary confinement—a practice that the Supreme Court over the centuries has variously called 'perilously close to a penal tomb,' something that will 'inevitably bring prisoners to the edge of madness, perhaps to madness itself,' and a 'further terror even over and above a death sentence.'"

She added, "The idea of putting prisoners in solitary confinement for decades on end would have been anathema to the founders, and we believe that the Supreme Court must someday take up a case to make that clear."

Hope, who was convicted in 1990 of five aggravated robberies with a deadly weapon and impersonating a public servant, spent 27 years in the security housing unit at the Polunsky Unit prison in Texas following an escape attempt in 1994. He is still in prison but was transferred into the general population last year.

For nearly three decades, Hope did not socialize with other prisoners, participate in religious activities, work or attend group vocational programs. He was confined to a cell "somewhere between the size of an elevator and the size of a compact parking space," according to his petition to the Supreme Court, and was given less than two hours a day for exercise in an enclosure.

His due process claims against prison officials allege that he was denied meaningful reviews to determine if he should be removed from solitary confinement and that hearings about his classification were a sham. His First Amendment retaliation claim asserts that after filing a grievance, he was moved to over 263 different cells and his typewriter was confiscated. Finally, his Eighth Amendment claim argues that his solitary confinement conditions and duration constituted cruel and unusual punishment. 

In a 2-1 unpublished opinion in 2021, the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit held that Hope failed to state a claim because solitary confinement does not violate the Eighth Amendment, no matter how long it is imposed. At least five other circuits have ruled that solitary confinement can violate the Eighth Amendment depending on length, impact on a prisoner's mental and physical health and necessity.

According to Hope's attorneys, he has suffered numerous physical and mental ailments due to his long-term confinement.

"He is afflicted by visual and auditory hallucinations and suicidal ideation. He suffers from anxiety and depression. And he endures chronic pain from constant confinement in cramped quarters," Hope's high court petition states.

John F. Stinneford, a law professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, has written extensively on the history and original meaning of the Eighth Amendment and filed an amicus brief with the Fifth Circuit in 2020 detailing why Hope's prison experience violates the Eight Amendment. 

"The twenty-six consecutive years of solitary confinement to which appellant Dennis Wayne Hope has been subjected violates the Eighth Amendment, and flagrantly so," the brief said.

According to Stinneford, the original meaning of the cruel and unusual punishment clause was understood to prohibit punishments that are unjustly harsh in light of longstanding prior practice, either because they involve a barbaric or unduly severe method of punishment or because they are significantly disproportionate to the offender's culpability as measured against the longstanding prior practice. 

The common use of solitary confinement is a relatively new feature of America's penal system, according to Stinneford. 

"This practice has not enjoyed anything close to 'long usage,'" the professor's brief states. "It was tried for a few decades in the nineteenth century but was then largely abandoned because it resulted in a high prevalence of severe harm to prisoners — including insanity, self-mutilation, and suicide."

According to the American Friends Service Committee, prisons equipped to hold inmates in long-term isolation cells have grown from a handful in 1985 to over 40 today. 

"The controversial reintroduction of the practice of long-term solitary confinement in the 1980s and 1990s represents the very sort of cruel innovation in punishment that the cruel and unusual punishments clause was originally understood to prohibit," Stinneford's brief states. 

Clear statistics on the number of prisoners in solitary confinement are hard to find as there's no federal reporting system that tracks how many people are isolated at any given time.

A 2015 report using Bureau of Justice Statistics data from 2011-2012 indicated that nearly 20% of state and federal prison inmates and 18% of local jail inmates had spent time in restrictive housing. Inmates disproportionally held in restrictive housing include inmates of color, younger inmates, uneducated inmates, and inmates that identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community. 

The bureau found that approximately 25% of convicted detainees and 35% of those in pretrial detention jails who had spent 30 days or longer in solitary confinement during the previous year had symptoms of serious psychological distress. The United Nations Committee Against Torture has repeatedly condemned the use of solitary confinement in the U.S., dating to the early 1990s. 

Anand said that as a result of filing a petition to the Supreme Court last year, the Texas prison defendants removed Hope from solitary confinement. 

"Although it took more than a quarter century, defendants finally removed Mr. Hope from solitary confinement, one week after our petition for certiorari was filed," the attorney said in a statement. "It shouldn't have taken a petition to the United States Supreme Court to get Mr. Hope out of solitary confinement, particularly since correctional officials concluded more than a decade ago that Mr. Hope was not an escape risk. But as a result, he has gotten to shake another human being's hand and to feel grass under his feet for the first time in more than half his lifetime."

Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Criminal, National

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