A federal appeals court on Tuesday ruled that Virginia’s policy of automatically putting death row inmates in solitary confinement does not violate the prisoners’ due process rights — a decision that effectively maintains the status quo when it comes with how the state treats those sentenced to execution.
In a 2-1 ruling thick with legal language, a panel from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that inmate Alfredo Prieto could not identify a “protected liberty interest” that would warrant judicial intervention, in large part because Virginia law is so explicit that those on death row should automatically be placed in solitary confinement.
The ruling overturns a decision by U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema, who ordered prison officials to either determine death row inmates’ confinement conditions on a case-by-case basis or to change all of their confinement conditions so that they are not so restrictive.
Appeals Court Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote that no court could “conclude that death row inmates have a state-created interest in consideration for non-solitary confinement when the State’s established written policy expressly precludes such consideration,” and “Prieto, like any other inmate, can only be deprived of that to which he is entitled.” Her opinion was joined by Judge Dennis W. Shedd.
Prieto was convicted of murder in California and of killing a man and woman near Reston in 1988 and is one of eight Virginia inmates on death row. His attorney declined to comment through a representative, but the ACLU of Virginia, which filed a brief supporting his position, condemned the appeals court’s ruling.
“Today’s decision is a major setback in the work to reduce the dehumanizing practice of prolonged solitary confinement,” ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga said in a statement. “Overwhelming evidence has found that such extreme isolation causes severe psychological damage to many prisoners and imposes significant safety concerns on correctional officers, prisoners, and the public.”
In a dissenting opinion, Judge James A. Wynn Jr. wrote that his colleagues seemed to be improperly parsing written regulations. “A unanimous Supreme Court told us in no uncertain terms that prisoners have a liberty interest in avoiding indefinite, highly restrictive imprisonment,” he wrote.
Michael Kelly, a spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, said state officials were happy with the court’s decision. He said the policy of housing death row inmates in solitary confinement is not simply for academic reasons, but for practical ones, noting that in the 1980s, death row inmates who were not isolated organized an escape.
“We were seeking a ruling that would protect the public and prison staff and other inmates by preserving the authority of prison officials to basically determine how to safely run their prisons and house their inmates,” Kelly said.
Lisa E. Kinney, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Corrections, said the appeals court’s decision was the correct one.
“Corrections officials must be the ones to determine how to safely house all offenders, including the most dangerous inmates, and we are pleased that the Court today agreed,” she said.
Five other inmates on Virginia’s death row are still suing the state over their confinement conditions, and while Tuesday’s decision would seem to undercut some of their claims, the group still intends to argue that the punishment they face is cruel and unusual, said attorney Victor M. Glasberg.
Glasberg said while courts often assert that near-constant solitary confinement is acceptable according to legal precedent, they do not ever claim it to be a humane method of housing prisoners. He said he is hoping to convince a judge to acknowledge the practice is inhumane, and thus unconstitutional.
“That’s not easy, but it’s very righteous, and it’s very compelling,” Glasberg said. “The fact of the matter is that things do change, and simply saying this is what courts say, that gets you so far, but it doesn’t get you far enough.”