Texas death row inmates are suing over automatic solitary confinement

A group of Texas death row inmates is suing the state prison system, claiming its policy of keeping men on death row in solitary confinement indefinitely violates their constitutional rights.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday on behalf of a group of male inmates at one facility, claims the policy has had devastating effects on inmates’ physical and mental health—and that the state has little practical reason to justify it.

“Researchers have extensively documented the physical and psychological harms caused by solitary confinement in particular—and social isolation in general—in a substantial body of peer-reviewed literature spanning decades. There is no longer any doubt that prolonged solitary confinement causes serious harms,” ​​the 45-page complaint states.

Texas is not alone in automatically placing death row inmates in solitary confinement. As of 2021, 12 states also practice automatic solitary confinement for death row inmates.

According to the lawsuit, these Texas death row inmates spend at least 22 hours each day in cramped 8-by-12-foot cells. They are only allowed to leave their cells on days when the prison allows “recreation”, during which they are “moved to individual concrete and metal cages and allowed to exercise on their own”.

Furthermore, the complaint claims that the state has no justification for such harsh measures. “Defendant’s arbitrary request that all male death row inmates be placed in permanent solitary confinement does not promote safety and security, is inconsistent with prison best practices, and serves no penological purpose.”

The effect of that policy was devastating. Several of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit have been in solitary confinement for decades — with one plaintiff serving nearly 30 years in solitary confinement. Because of their isolation, plaintiffs reported dramatic deterioration in their physical and mental health, such as significant weight gain, hypertension, depression, and PTSD.

Furthermore, prison officials have made it incredibly difficult for these death row inmates to get proper medical care or access to their lawyers. Medical visits “are sporadic, and mental and physical health providers are often forced to speak openly with their quarreling patients,” the complaint said. “Scheduling legal visits can take weeks and take place in a public setting where conversations are easily overheard.”

The lawsuit alleges, among other complaints, that such prolonged seclusion violates plaintiffs’ Eighth Amendment rights. Several federal courts have recognized the Eighth Amendment concerns raised by prolonged solitary confinement. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit—which has jurisdiction in Texas—”recognized that it is ‘more than likely’ that decades of solitary confinement could cause serious physical and mental deterioration ‘severe enough to invoke Eighth Amendment concerns,'” according to the complaint.

The lawsuit is the latest in a series of attempts to limit the use of solitary confinement in Texas prisons. Inmate Dennis Wayne Hope, who has been in solitary confinement for nearly 30 years, last year asked the Supreme Court to take over his case, saying the practice amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Currently, several inmates in Texas prisons are on hunger strike, protesting the state’s use of solitary confinement.

Long-term solitary confinement is endemic in American prisons. As of July 2021, nearly 50,000 people were held in solitary confinement in US prisons — about 3 percent of the total prison population. An estimated 4,000 people are held in solitary confinement in Texas – and more than two-thirds of those inmates have been held for more than a year.

“Decades of evidence show the irreversible physical and psychological harm caused by long-term solitary confinement,” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. ReasonCJ Ciaramella last year. “There is no justifiable reason for prisons and other detention facilities to continue using long-term solitary confinement, which is recognized as a form of torture.”

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