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Legal Features

The court opinion in Thomas Porter v. Harold W. Clarke

In response to a lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates held in “dehumanizing” conditions of isolation, a federal court has found that the conditions on Virginia’s death row violated the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. In ordering the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) not to keep prisoners in solitary confinement, U.S. District Court Judge Leonie M. Brinkema in Thomas Porter v. Harold Clarke found that VDOC’s practice of holding death-row inmates for many years in small cells for almost 23 hours per day, without contact visitation and with only five hours of outdoor exercise per week, created a significant risk of substantial psychological and emotional harm and violated the Eighth Amendment rights of inmates.

The Rutherford Institute, working in conjunction with the ACLU of Virginia, filed a brief in the case in support of the lawsuit challenging the “dehumanizing” conditions of isolation, arguing that tactical policy changes adopted by the VDOC in order to sidestep court-mandated legal obligations (the practice of “tactical mooting”) leave prisoners at greater risk of having harsh conditions re-imposed upon them. Affiliate attorney Tim Coffield of Keswick, Va., helped advance the arguments in the Porter case.