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October 9, 2018

Justice Sotomayor issues cert statement discussing "deeply troubling concern" with solitary confinement

The Supreme Court's order list this morning includes no cert grants, but does have an interesting eight-page statement by Justice Sotomayor starting this way:

A punishment need not leave physical scars to be cruel and unusual. See Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101 (1958).  As far back as 1890, this Court expressed concerns about the mental anguish caused by solitary confinement.  These petitions address one aspect of what a prisoner subjected to solitary confinement may experience: the denial of even a moment in daylight for months or years.  Although I agree with the Court’s decision not to grant certiorari in these cases because of arguments unmade and facts underdeveloped below, I write because the issue raises deeply troubling concern.

UPDATE:  Amy Howe provides this helpful context and summary of this case via this post at SCOTUSblog:

The justices announced today that they will not hear the cases of three Colorado inmates who argue that holding them in solitary confinement, without any access to the outdoors or concerns about security, violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  Two of the inmates, Jonathan Apodaca and Joshua Vigil, didn’t go outdoors for more than 11 months, while the third inmate, Donnie Lowe, didn’t have outdoor recreation for several years.  Prison officials argued that they could not be sued because it was not clearly established -- the standard to overcome the general presumption that government officials are immune from lawsuits -- that their solitary-confinement policy was unconstitutional.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit agreed, and the inmates asked the Supreme Court to weigh in.  Justice Stephen Breyer has expressed concern about holding inmates in solitary confinement before: Last year he dissented from the Supreme Court’s announcement that it would not block the execution of a Texas death-row inmate who had been held in solitary confinement for 20 years.  And now-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested in 2015 that extended periods of solitary confinement might violate the Eighth Amendment’s bar on cruel and unusual punishment.  But there were apparently not four votes to take up the issue now.

In an eight-page opinion regarding the court’s decision to deny review, Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested that the justices might have rejected these cases because the lower courts had not focused on whether Colorado had valid security reasons for its solitary-confinement policy.  But Sotomayor then went on to express “grave misgivings” about solitary confinement, noting that as many as 100,000 inmates (including many who are not on death row) are held in cells alone.  And she pointed out that Donnie Lowe -- who was held in solitary confinement for 11 years while serving time for second-degree burglary and smuggling contraband into prison -- died earlier this year: “While we do not know what caused his death,” she concluded, “we do know that solitary confinement imprints on those that it clutches a wide range of psychological scars.”  She ended her opinion with a plea to courts and prison officials to “remain alert to the clear constitutional problems raised by keeping prisoners like Apodaca, Vigil, and Lowe in ‘near-total isolation’ from the living world, in what comes perilously close to a penal tomb.”

October 9, 2018 at 09:57 AM | Permalink

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