|The Adjustment Center cells housing death row inmates inside San Quentin|
A group of death row inmates has sued the state for keeping them in solitary confinement for years or even decades, locked in windowless cells with no phone calls or human contact. It's treatment, they said, that "amounts to torture."
The suit was filed in federal court Wednesday by 6 condemned prisoners, who said they were among about 100 inmates, out of 750 on death row, who are kept in isolation in the Adjustment Center at San Quentin State Prison as suspected gang members or associates. The suit said they are held in their cells 21 to 24 hours a day, with no natural light, no access to education or work programs, no phone calls and no contact visits from family members, who must speak to them by phone across a glass barrier.
One of the men has been in solitary confinement for 26 years, and 2 others for more than a decade, the suit said. Condemned prisoners in California spend an average of nearly 25 years on death row while their cases are appealed. A federal judge cited the duration of their confinement, though not the conditions, in a ruling last year that declared the state's death penalty unconstitutional. The state has appealed the ruling.
The suit is similar to a case scheduled for trial in December in federal court in Oakland over the solitary confinement of thousands of inmates in various prisons' Security Housing Units, the maximum-security lockups that house prisoners suspected of gang affiliations. The San Quentin suit was filed separately because the adjustment center isn't classified as a Security Housing Unit, although the conditions are similar, said Daniel Siegel, lawyer for the death row inmates.
Inmates in both cases claim their isolation violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment and denies them due process of law. Until recently, they said, the only way out of the isolation unit was to become an informant. Prison officials say they now conduct case-by-case reviews of each inmate's gang status or affiliations, and have released some inmates into the general prison population. But inmates say they are still kept in solitary confinement because of books they've read or cartoons found in their cells.
Siegel said release from isolation is even harder to win on death row. He said some inmates have been kept in the Adjustment Center solely because their capital crimes were gang-related.
Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said officials haven't seen the suit and can't comment on it. But she said no inmates are held in the cells for 24 hours a day, because they're entitled to 10 hours a week in the prison exercise yard.
Source: Associated Press, June 19, 2015
Justice Kennedy practically invites a challenge to solitary confinement
|Screenshot from "Rectify", a 2013 TV series created by Ray McKinnon|
Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in an unusual separate opinion in a case wrote that it may be time for judges to limit the use of long-term solitary confinement in prisons.
His comments accompanying a decision issued Thursday marked a rare instance of a Supreme Court justice virtually inviting a constitutional challenge to a prison policy.
"Years on end of near-total isolation exacts a terrible price," he wrote. He cited the writings of Charles Dickens and 19th century Supreme Court opinions that recognized "even for prisoners sentenced to death, solitary confinement bears 'a further terror and a peculiar mark of infamy.'"
Sentencing judges and the high court have largely ignored the issue, Kennedy said, focusing their attention on questions of guilt or innocence or on the constitutionality of the death penalty.
"In a case that presented the issue, the judiciary may be required," he wrote, "to determine whether workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist, and, if so, whether a correctional system should be required to adopt them."
Amy Fettig, an attorney for the ACLU's National Prison Project, said Kennedy's comments came as a welcome surprise.
"It's a remarkable statement. The justice is sending a strong signal he is deeply concerned about the overuse and abuse of solitary confinement," she said.
States such as Virginia and Texas routinely put death-row inmates in solitary confinement, she said. "They are automatically placed there. It has nothing to do with their being violent or their level of dangerousness," she said.
This month, a federal judge in Virginia is weighing a "cruel and unusual punishment" claim brought by inmates on death row there, she noted.
Kennedy usually joins with the court's conservatives in cases involving crime and punishment, but he has also voiced concern over prison policies that he deems unduly harsh. These include life terms for juveniles and long mandatory prison terms for nonviolent drug crimes. 4 years ago, he spoke for a 5-4 majority that condemned overcrowding in California's prisons and said it resulted in unconstitutionally cruel conditions.
Both sides of Kennedy's views were evident in Thursday's decision. He joined a 5-4 majority to reject a San Diego murderer's bid for a new trial, but wrote separately to raise the issue of possible constitutional limits to solitary confinement.
The case before the court involved Hector Ayala, who had been convicted and sentenced to die for shooting to death 3 men in the attempted robbery of an auto body shop in 1985. A 4th man had been shot, but survived and identified Ayala as the shooter.
Ayala has been on California's death row ever since his conviction a generation ago. The California courts upheld his conviction and death sentence, but 2 years ago a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel overturned both. In a 2-1 decision, the appeals court cited the trial judge's decision permitting prosecutors to remove all seven of the blacks and Latinos who were considered for the jury.
The Supreme Court reversed that decision and restored Ayala's conviction and death sentence. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the "conscientious trial judge" had spoken to each of the potential jurors and decided the prosecutor was justified in removing them. "His judgment was entitled to great weight," he concluded.
In his separate opinion, Kennedy said he agreed Alito's opinion was "complete and correct," but said he was nonetheless troubled to learn Ayala had been kept in solitary confinement. This means he has "been held for all or most of the past 20 years or more in a windowless cell no larger than a typical parking spot for 23 hours a day," he wrote. An estimated 25,000 inmates in the United States are being held in solitary confinement without regard to their conduct in prison, he added.
Kennedy's comments drew a short, but sharp retort from Justice Clarence Thomas.
"The accommodations in which Ayala is housed are a far sight more spacious than those in which his victims ... now rest. And, given that his victims were all 31 years or age or under, Ayala will soon have had as much or more time to enjoy those accommodations as his victims had time to enjoy this Earth," Thomas wrote.
Source: Los Angeles Times, June 19, 2015
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