Florida has joined the growing number of states that have ended automatic permanent solitary confinement for prisoners sentenced to death.

The Florida Department of Corrections agreed to the action as part of a settlement of a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by eight prisoners who alleged that the state’s death-row conditions were “extreme, debilitating, and inhumane, violate[d] contemporary standards of decency, and pose[d] an unreasonable risk of serious harm to the health and safety.” U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Morales Howard approved the settlement in late April 2022 to eliminate permanent solitary confinement for death-row prisoners and to improve death-row conditions in the state.

Florida death-row prisoners had for more than forty years spent almost every day in 24-hour-a-day solitary confinement in concrete rooms the size of a parking space with no windows. They had severely limited access to exercise, phone calls, and other human interaction, including with other prisoners and staff.

The settlement allows the prisoners to spend up to 20 hours a week in a day room, where they can meet with others, watch television, and have access to Department of Corrections multimedia kiosks. They will also have more access to phones to call loved ones, increased shower access, and will be granted six hours a week of outside activity — up from three hours — with a new sunshade. Prisoners who meet eligibility requirements determined by the Department of Corrections will also have access to institutional jobs.

Evan Shea, whose law firm helped coordinate the lawsuit, praised the settlement. “This is going to lead to a smoother operation of the prison,” he said. “It’s not a good way to run a prison to have inmates that are subject to severe psychological strain. That leads to unhappy prisoners, inmates that are not stable and react in ways that place burdens on correctional officers and on the prison administration.”

“It’s been a tenet of our legal system, really since its inception, that no matter what anyone has done or what they’ve been convicted of, they deserve humane, responsible confinement,” Shea said. “As we understand more about the effects of isolation on mental health, it’s very clear from the science that prolonged isolation is not a humane, just condition to place someone in.”

Florida is just the latest in a series of states who have significantly changed or altered their death-row conditions in recent years in response to prisoner lawsuits. Since 2017, five other states have ended automatic prolonged solitary confinement for their death rows: Arizona, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia. Another state, Oklahoma, has not ended its practice of keeping death-row prisoners in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, but has implemented some other changes, including eliminating incarceration in windowless cells, permitting contact visitation, and providing some opportunity for outside recreation.

A brief filed in February 2022 by a group of former prison directors in Hope v. Harris, a pending Supreme Court challenge to the constitutionality of long-term solitary confinement, argues that the practice “can cause severe psychological and physical harm, and is a costly, ineffective form of punishment that does not advance penological goals or improve prison security.” They write that “[t]he severe isolation increases prison violence and disorder, serves no interest in preventing incarcerated people from escaping, and inhibits rehabilitation.”

The Texas death-row prisoner behind that challenge, Dennis Hope, wrote to his lawyers that “[c]hallenging the use of solitary confinement has given me a purpose and goal and helped me maintain a degree of my sanity in an otherwise insane environment.” “Having sat back here and watched men commit suicide, mutilate themselves, try to overdose on pills and slowly lose their minds,” he told his lawyers, “I said to myself that I was going to try to make a positive change in the way we are housed and treated if it was the last thing I did.”

A DPIC analysis of data from a fall 2021 law review by Merel Pontier found that the twelve states that mandated prolonged solitary confinement — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming — collectively accounted for 953 death-row prisoners, or 38.6% of those on death rows nationwide at the end of 2020. Half of U.S. death-sentenced prisoners have been on death row for more than twenty years.

While rehabilitation has never been the goal of capital punishment, a Death Penalty Information Center review of more than 9,700 death sentences imposed in the United States between 1972 and the end of 2020 has found that the most likely outcome of a capital case once a death sentence has been imposed is that the defendant’s conviction or death sentence will be overturned and the prisoner will not be resentenced to death. Death-row exonerees face significant challenges to reentry into society that are exacerbated by the psychological damage caused by as a result of the conditions in which they had been confined on death row . The conditions of confinement also adversely affect the ability of former death-row prisoners to integrate into the general prison population.