July 20, 2017

Federal Lawsuit Challenges Permanent Solitary Confinement of Death Row Prisoners at Two Florida State Prisons

3 min

Washington, DC (July 19, 2017) – Today nine death row prisoners filed a federal class action lawsuit seeking to reform the Florida Department of Corrections' policy that automatically places all death row prisoners in indefinite solitary confinement as soon as they are sentenced to death, with no consideration of their behavior while incarcerated and no opportunity to challenge their placement.

The named plaintiffs have been kept in solitary confinement for between 4 and 30 years at either Florida State Prison or Union Correctional Institution. They and their fellow death row prisoners often spend 24 hours a day in their cells, allowed to leave at most twice a week to exercise and three times a week to shower alone. Their cells are concrete, windowless, cut off from other prisoners' cells, and cramped—approximately the same size as a parking space for a car.

According to the lawsuit, Florida's policy of automatic, indefinite solitary confinement for death row prisoners is "extreme, debilitating, and inhumane, violates contemporary standards of decency, and poses an unreasonable risk of serious harm to the health and safety" of death row prisoners.

There is a consensus in the scientific community that prisoners in solitary confinement, even for a relativity short period of time, risk severe and potentially irreversible emotional, psychological and physiological damage. The harm can include hypersensitivity to stimuli, hallucinations, increased anxiety, paranoia, chronic depression, heart palpitations, and nightmares.

A number of judicial decisions have recognized this scientific research when condemning the practice of prolonged solitary confinement. The international human rights community has embraced this scientific research by categorizing prolonged solitary confinement as torture. And other prison systems in the United States and around the world have abandoned the use of prolonged solitary confinement because of this scientific research.

The lawsuit alleges that Florida's policy of indefinite solitary confinement serves no legitimate penal purpose and violates both the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and the Fourteenth Amendment right to due process.

The lawsuit seeks a court order prohibiting Florida from holding death row prisoners in solitary confinement, except for limited periods and only under circumstances following an individualized determination that a valid penological purpose for such confinement exists.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of similar cases filed in Louisiana, California, Arizona, New York and New Jersey. Just last week, the Department of Justice's Inspector General released a report further exposing the extreme adverse effects of the use of prolonged solitary confinement.

The plaintiffs are being represented by local trial counsel Linda McDermott, Marty McClain of McClain & McDermott P.A., and Venable LLP attorneys Seth Rosenthal, Claire Wheeler, Maggie Grace, and Matthew Shea.


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