Skip to main content

On The Front Lines

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

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — 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.

“Government officials have become experts at saying all the right things while doing all the wrong things. That’s why we have a Constitution and legislative and judicial branches: ideally, they are supposed to hold government officials accountable to abiding by the rule of law in this country,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “This case reminds us that there is no room for trust in the relationship between the citizenry and the government. As Thomas Jefferson warned, ‘In questions of power then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.’”

Virginia prisoners awaiting execution are housed in a segregated area of Sussex I State Prison. Prior to 2015, “Death Row” at the prison consisted of cells less than half the size of a parking space, with minimal natural light and artificial light which remained on at all hours. Prisoners were separated by at least one empty cell, making communication between prisoners nearly impossible amidst near-isolation. Moreover, prisoners were held alone in these cells for 23 hours per day, ate all of their meals alone in their cells and were denied any opportunity for group religious activity or recreation. These Death Row conditions have been characterized by the courts in previous litigation as “dehumanizing” and “undeniably severe.” In November 2014, four Death Row inmates, represented by pro bono attorneys, filed a lawsuit asserting that the conditions of their confinement constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Although VDOC officials initially defended the conditions as constitutional, 20 months later, in the midst of the lawsuit, VDOC contradicted its own legal assertions and 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 VDOC’s new regulations did not moot the case, and on remand the district court ruled that the severe isolation the inmates were subjected to constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Case History

September 28, 2017 • Rutherford Institute Asks Eastern District Court to Hold Virginia Prison Officials Accountable to Maintaining Humane Conditions for Inmates