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September 14, 2015

Is a capital case the right kind of vehicle for SCOTUS to consider solitary confinement?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new New York Times piece by Adam Liptak headlined "Virginia Has Solitary Confinement Case, if Justices Want It." Here are excerpts:

The Supreme Court seems eager to hear a case on the constitutionality of a distinctively American form of punishment: prolonged solitary confinement. “Years on end of near total isolation exact a terrible price,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in a concurrence in a case in June. Justice Stephen G. Breyer echoed the point in a dissent in a case later that month.

An appeal from Virginia materialized almost immediately. Now the justices must weigh whether it has the right features — whether it is, in legal jargon, a good vehicle — to serve as the basis for a major decision on extended solitary confinement, which much of the world considers torture.

On the plus side, the case asks the sort of focused and incremental question that the justices often find attractive: May states automatically put all death row inmates in solitary confinement?

Last week, Mark R. Herring, Virginia’s attorney general, filed a brief urging the court to turn down the appeal. It is, he said, the wrong vehicle to address “the broader concerns recently voiced by Justices Kennedy and Breyer.” For starters, Mr. Herring wrote, “the case is likely to become moot before it can be decided.” That is because the state intends to execute the inmate who brought the challenge, Alfredo R. Prieto, on Oct. 1.

More generally, Mr. Herring wrote, Virginia is the wrong state in which to examine the issue of prolonged solitary confinement on death row because its capital justice system is exceptionally efficient. Inmates in other states can spend decades in solitary confinement, he wrote, but Virginia generally executes condemned inmates seven to 10 years after their convictions.

Mr. Prieto has been on death row for about seven years. But that was enough isolation, he told the justices, to have caused him mental agony. In a 2013 deposition, the warden of the prison where Mr. Prieto is serving his sentence seemed to concede the inhumanity of solitary confinement. “There is real importance to getting out and being with other people, I agree, and not being 24/7 in a cell,” said the warden, Keith Davis. “We, as humans, we don’t survive very well that way with lack of human contact.”

Later that year, a federal trial judge ruled in Mr. Prieto’s favor. “He must spend almost all of his time alone,” deprived of contact even with fellow prisoners, the judge, Leonie M. Brinkema, wrote. In theory, family members could visit on weekends in a room with a glass partition. “In actuality,” she said, “no one ever comes.”

Mr. Prieto, she said, “has not engaged in any of the behaviors that would normally support placement in segregated confinement,” and was “by all accounts a model prisoner.” On the other hand, he has a chilling criminal record. Mr. Prieto was on California’s death row for the 1990 rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl when, in 2005, DNA evidence linked him to a 1988 rape and double murder in Virginia. He was extradited to Virginia and found guilty....

In March, a divided three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Virginia reversed Judge Brinkema’s ruling, though even the majority said the state’s approach was harsh. “Of course,” Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the majority, “the Supreme Court could prescribe more rigorous judicial review.”

Last week, Mr. Herring, the state’s attorney general, urged the Supreme Court to defer to prison officials in the case, Prieto v. Clarke, No. 15-31. “Death row offenders are sui generis,” he wrote. “States are entitled to make the judgment that death-sentenced offenders, as a class, should be confined in maximum-security conditions.”...

In June, Justice Kennedy lamented that “the condition in which prisoners are kept simply has not been a matter of sufficient public inquiry or interest.” That seemed to change over the summer. In July, President Obama ordered the Justice Department to review the use of solitary confinement in federal facilities....

This month, California settled a lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights by agreeing to cut back sharply on solitary confinement. The next day, a group representing the nation’s corrections officials called for “efforts to limit or end extended isolation.”

Things are changing even in Virginia, perhaps as a consequence of Mr. Pietro’s lawsuit. In a sworn statement filed last month in a different case, Mr. Clarke, the corrections official, said death row inmates can now watch television and play games like chess or checkers with up to three other condemned prisoners for an hour a day. They can also have weekly “contact visits” with family members. These can include “one brief kiss, a handshake and/or an embrace.”

Plans are afoot, Mr. Clarke added, for an outdoor recreation yard that will allow small groups of death row inmates to play basketball and exercise together. It should be completed by the end of October, not long after Mr. Prieto’s scheduled execution.

Regular readers likely know that I believe and often lament that capital cases often get too much attention from the Supreme Court (and others) relative to other cases involving much less serious crimes and much more sympathetic offenders. Nevertheless, as this piece notes, Virginia's blanket policy of putting all death-row defendants in solitary might make this case an appropriate (and certainly interesting) setting for a foray into what the Eighth Amendment might say these days about extreme forms of imprisonment.

September 14, 2015 at 04:50 PM | Permalink

Comments

If someone is on death row, as with LWOP, there is an absolutely legally immune license to kill. It is better than that of James Bond. He has to answer to the Civil Service and to left wing MP's. No such inconvenience for the lawyer client on death row.

Anyone who criticizes the practice should volunteer as a prison guard. Show us the proper way to manage these prisoners.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 14, 2015 8:38:47 PM

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