In Lawsuit Settlement, Arizona to End Automatic Solitary Confinement for Death-Row Prisoners
Arizona will soon end its policy of automatically and indefinitely incarcerating death-row prisoners in solitary confinement, joining a growing number of states to ease draconian conditions on their state death rows. Arizona's action is part of a settlement of a federal lawsuit filed against the Department of Corrections (DOC) by death-row prisoner Scott Nordstrom (pictured), which argued that the state's death-row conditions were unconstitutionally harsh. Nordstrom's attorney, Sam Kooistra, said that the change in housing does not mean "softer treament" for condemned prisoners, but rather that they "get treated more like non-death sentence inmates do" by being afforded an individualized housing assessment based upon their conduct in prison and the risk they pose to others. 70% of the approximately 2,900 prisoners on death row in the U.S. are automatically held alone in their cells for more than 20 hours per day, with nearly two-thirds held in solitary confinement more than 22 hours per day, according to a survey of state corrections officials by The Marshall Project. Other states such as California, Colorado, Louisiana, Nevada, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia—prompted by court challenges over death-row conditions—have already begun to allow death-sentenced prisoners more time out of their cells and, in some cases, to eat meals and exercise with other inmates, have contact visits with family members, and hold prison jobs. In February, a federal appeals court declared unconstitutional Pennsylvania's long-standing practice of automatically keeping prisoners whose death sentences had been overturned in solitary confinement—sometimes for years—until they had completed retrial or resentencing proceedings and received a lesser sentence. Nine condemned prisoners in Florida have also filed suit on behalf of the more than 350 prisoners currently held on the state's death row, which asks the court to prohibit prisoners from being held in solitary confinement for indefinite duration and without a case-specific justification. Currently, Florida holds death-sentenced prisoners in solitary confinement up to 23 hours every day. Three prisoners on Louisiana's death row have filed filed a federal class action lawsuit charging that their isolation at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola amounts to a “severe denial of human fundamental needs.” Although prison officials have begun allowing death-sentenced prisoners four hours out of their cell per day, as well as some educational programming and activities with other prisoners, Betsy Ginsberg—one of the Angola prisoners’ lawyers—said the class-action lawsuit will continue to ensure that the recent changes are “constitutionally adequate, properly implemented, and permanent.” These developments in death-row conditions come in the midst of a national rethinking of the use of solitary confinement, which has come under fire as unnecessarily, psychologically debilitating, cruel, and expensive.
(G. Robles, "Condemned to Death - And Solitary Confinement," The Marshall Project, July 23, 2017; "Lawsuit Challenges Florida Use of Solitary for Death Row," Associated Press, July 20, 2017.)