A LAWSUIT challenging Virginia’s automatic use of solitary confinement for death row inmates is on track after a federal judge refused the state’s request for dismissal. It is good this issue will get the hearing it demands. Even better would be for the state to take to heart the judge’s admonition about “changing moral and legal standards” and voluntarily end a practice that is unnecessarily punitive and of questionable efficacy.
“I do not understand why the commonwealth is insisting on maintaining this level of these conditions,” District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema said in urging Virginia officials to “give some serious thought to trying to work this case out.” The suit brought by four death row inmates claims that isolation in small cells with no human contact for “nearly every hour of every day” violates the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Judge Brinkema had previously ruled automatic solitary confinement unconstitutional, but the case turned on the issue of due process and the ruling was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.
Legal precedents may well be on the state’s side. But growing evidence about the harmful effects of long periods of solitary confinement and questions about its costs and usefulness should prompt state officials to rethink the practice. There is no question that safety in prisons must be a priority but, as attorneys for the inmates point out, studies have shown that inmates sentenced to death are no more dangerous than others convicted of violent crimes. A group of former corrections officers argued in another case that solitary is actually counterproductive to institutional safety.
Some states — including Missouri, North Carolina and Colorado — have abandoned automatic solitary confinement for those on death row without significant problems. As for the argument that those on death row deserve no consideration, we can’t help but think of the cases of those convicts who have been exonerated but, once freed, have had to deal with the mental-health effects of solitary confinement.
Source: The Washington Post, Editorial Board, June 10, 2015
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