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On The Front Lines

Eighth Amendment Victory: Federal Court Bars Prison Officials From Subjecting Death Row Inmates to Harsh, Dehumanizing Conditions

RICHMOND, Va. —In a rebuke to the practice of subjecting prisoners to solitary confinement, a federal appeals court has held that a Virginia prison violated the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment by confining death row inmates to parking-space sized cells in virtual isolation. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that conditions at Sussex I State Prison were “dehumanizing” and ordered prison officials to make permanent changes mitigating the conditions, including allowing death row inmates to have contact visits with family and opportunities for recreational and religious activities. The Rutherford Institute and American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia filed an amicus brief with the appeals court in Porter v. Clarke urging it to uphold an injunction against prison officials, arguing that a binding court order was necessary to ensure that state officials abide by the court’s ruling on the inmates’ Eighth Amendment right to be free of cruel punishment and to prevent the harsh conditions of isolation being re-imposed upon the prisoners.

Affiliate attorneys David W. DeBruin and Jeffrey A. Atteberry, of Jenner & Block, LLP, assisted The Rutherford Institute and the ACLU of Virginia in advancing the arguments in the Porter brief.

“This case reminds us that there is no room for trust in the relationship between the citizenry and the government,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Trust the government to police itself, and it will sidestep the law at every turn. The only way to ensure that government officials obey the law and respect the rights of the citizenry, as Thomas Jefferson recognized, is to bind them with ‘the chains of the Constitution.’”

Virginia prisoners awaiting execution are housed in a segregated area of Sussex I State Prison. “Death Row” at the prison consists of 44 cells that are less than half the size of a parking space, with minimal natural light and artificial light which remains on at all hours. Prisoners are separated by at least one empty cell, making communication between prisoners nearly impossible amidst near-isolation. Moreover, until August 2015, prisoners were held alone in their cells for 23 hours per day – often all day on weekend, ate all of their meals alone in their cells and were denied any opportunity for group religious activity or recreation. These Death Row conditions were found by the courts to be “dehumanizing” and “undeniably severe.” In November 2014, four Death Row inmates, represented by pro bono attorneys, filed a lawsuit in federal district court asserting that the conditions of their confinement violated the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.” VDOC officials defended the Death Row conditions as constitutional and necessary to preserve prison security. However, 20 months later, in the midst of the lawsuit, VDOC enacted regulations allowing for Death Row prisoners to have contact visits with close family, engage in recreational group activities, and access a kiosk where they could purchase books and movies and send email. The district court held the prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights were violated and imposed an injunction on VDOC. VDOC appealed the lower court ruling to the Fourth Circuit, claiming that the injunction should not have been entered. In defending the rights of the prison inmates, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute and the ACLU of Virginia asked the Fourth Circuit to reject VDOC’s appeal, warning that the VDOC may be engaging in “tactical mooting” (adopting tactical policy changes in order to avoid a binding court ruling that would prevent VDOC from returning to the dehumanizing conditions).

The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated.

Case History

August 28, 2018 • Rutherford Institute, ACLU Ask Fourth Circuit to Ensure that Prison Officials Do Not Re-Subject Inmates to Harsh, Dehumanizing Conditions 

February 22, 2018 • VICTORY: Federal Court Declares Death Row Conditions Unconstitutional, Will Hold Prison Officials Accountable to Maintaining Humane Conditions 

March 31, 2017 • Concluding That Prison Officials Cannot Be Trusted to Maintain Humane Conditions, Appeals Court Reinstates Lawsuit Mandating Change

September 22, 2016 • Rutherford Institute Calls Foul on Virginia Prison Officials for Subjecting Inmates to Dehumanizing Isolation & Avoiding Accountability


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