May 27, 2022

Venable Pro Bono Team Changes Permanent Solitary Confinement Rules for Florida Death Row Inmates

3 min

A team of Venable attorneys recently secured a major victory in a groundbreaking class-wide settlement with the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC).

Historically, some states automatically put death row inmates in permanent solitary confinement, where they remained locked alone in concrete, windowless cells the size of a parking space for nearly 24 hours a day for years or, in many cases, decades. Recent case law has challenged that long-standing treatment as a violation of the Eighth Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual" punishment and the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of "due process." Research shows that long-term solitary confinement can lead to anxiety, paranoia, chronic depression, hallucinations, and suicidal thoughts.

"In the past, states relied on cases decided years ago to defeat challenges to long-term solitary confinement," Venable partner Evan Shea, who led the team past the finish line, said. "So, the real challenge was fashioning legal and factual arguments capable of persuading the court that more recent cases, citing advances in scientific understanding of the effects of isolation, had displaced that prior precedent."

In 2017, Venable brought a class action lawsuit against the FDOC to end its practice of housing all of the state's more than 300 death row prisoners in permanent solitary confinement. The team won a precedent-setting ruling that found that the lawsuit's allegations about Florida's death row confinement policies stated actionable violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Several weeks ago, following a long negotiation process, Florida and Venable, on behalf of the plaintiff class, reached a settlement that the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida formally approved.

Since 2015, more than a dozen Venable attorneys have devoted more than 2,200 pro bono hours to the case, finding and interviewing plaintiffs, fashioning the complaint, and hammering out the settlement negotiations. Notably, Venable associate Matthew Shea was a leading attorney on the matter from its start to its finish, working alongside partner and Pro Bono Committee chair Seth Rosenthal.

The settlement requires the FDOC to convert one cell on each wing of death row into a day room and to give all class members free access to the room and the hallway on their wing for three to four hours a day, five days a week, in addition to the out-of-cell exercise time they already receive. During this out-of-cell time, inmates can congregate with others, use a multimedia kiosk, watch TV, make phone calls, and shower. Class members also will be eligible for work assignments, which could add to their out-of-cell time.

Shea said the settlement will "make an impact on the criminal justice system in the state of Florida and throughout the country."

In her order approving the settlement, Judge Marcia Morales Howard expressed her appreciation for Venable and local counsel Linda McDermott, "for their willingness to take on this difficult case and the diligence with which they have pursued the matter." They "undoubtedly could have pursued far more lucrative work in the thousands of hours they spent on this case, and their service here is to be commended," she said.