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On The Front Lines

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

ALEXANDRIA, Va. —The Rutherford Institute, working in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, has asked a federal appeals court to uphold an injunction ensuring that prison officials do not sidestep court rulings and re-subject Virginia death-row inmates to “dehumanizing” conditions of isolation. In weighing in before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the two civil liberties organizations argue that in the absence of a binding court ruling requiring the Virginia Department of Corrections to abide by court-mandated legal obligations to respect the inmates’ Eight Amendment right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment, prisoners are at greater risk of having harsh conditions of isolation re-imposed upon them.

Affiliate attorneys David W. DeBruin and Jeffrey A. Atteberry, of Jenner & Block, LLP, in Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, CA, 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.

In March 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled the VDOC changes did not moot the case. On remand, 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 are asking 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).

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