March 29, 2017

Read about the Civil Rights Clinic and Professor Betsy Ginsberg's lawsuit in The New York Times: "3 Men on Death Row in Louisiana Sue Over Solitary Confinement." 

March 29, 2017, Angola, Louisiana – Three death row prisoners filed a complaint in a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of all death row prisoners at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The lawsuit seeks to reform the prison’s policy that automatically places all prisoners sentenced to death — even those who cannot be executed under current Supreme Court standards — in prolonged isolation for the entirety of their incarceration and with no opportunity to challenge their placement. The named plaintiffs have each been kept in solitary confinement for between 25 and 31 years. Of the 71 prisoners currently sentenced to death, 56 of them have been in solitary confinement for over a decade; 45 of them have been in solitary for more than 15 years; and 20 of them have been in solitary for more than 20 years. Over the past 30 years, less than 12 percent of those sentenced to death in Louisiana have actually been executed. As a result, most of the prisoners sentenced to death row remain there, in prolonged solitary confinement.

Death row prisoners at Angola spend 23 hours every day in extreme isolation. They are in windowless cells that measure eight feet by ten feet, and are allowed out of their cells for only one hour each day. Three times a week, the prisoners may use part of their one hour to go alone into a small, unshaded outdoor cage that does not provide the basic space or equipment for exercise. Additionally, death row prisoners at Angola have no meaningful human contact and they receive little mental or physical stimulation, often remaining idle in their cells. They are denied access to any educational or vocational programs and not permitted to have a job or have any hobby craft materials. Access to medical and mental health treatment is limited.

Prolonged confinement under these conditions leads to severe and potentially irreversible physical and psychological harms. Mental health professionals agree that solitary confinement negatively affects an individual’s physical well-being and cognitive ability. People held in solitary confinement, especially the prolonged solitary confinement involved in this case, are debilitated by severe anxiety, claustrophobia, hallucinations and depression. Prisoners housed in prolonged isolation report difficulty with thinking, concentration and memory, and overt paranoia. The risk of risk of self-harm and suicide is much higher for individuals in solitary confinement.

In addition to advocacy organizations and mental health professionals, a wide range of individuals and organizations have commented upon the unacceptable harm of prolonged solitary confinement. For example, the U.N. Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment has held that more than 15 days in solitary confinement amounts to torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Likewise, the U.N. General Assembly has called for an "absolute abolition" on the use of prolonged isolation as punishment. The Association of State Correctional Administrators has called the isolation of individuals in jails and prisons a grave problem, calling for efforts to limit or end extended isolation. The National Commission on Correctional Health Care, has stated that solitary confinement lasting longer than 15 consecutive days is detrimental to an individual’s health and should be abolished as a form of punishment. Finally, in his concurring opinion in Davis v. Ayala, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated, “[R]esearch still confirms what this Court suggested over a century ago: Years on end of near-total isolation exact a terrible price.” Davis v. Ayala, 135 S. Ct. 2187, 2210 (2015). Justice Kennedy has also testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, that solitary confinement is ineffective and inhumane. Justice Kennedy’s sentiments were echoed very recently by Justice Breyer who wrote that “if extended solitary confinement alone raises serious constitutional questions, then 20 years of solitary confinement, all while under threat of execution, must raise similar questions, and to a rare degree, and with particular intensity.” Ruiz v. Texas, No. 16-7792, 2017 WL 901080, at *2 (U.S. Mar. 7, 2017).

Additionally, the lawsuit maintains that Angola’s policy of automatically and permanently placing death row prisoners in solitary confinement serves no legitimate penal purpose. Corrections experts across the United States have urged that prisoners should be placed in special classifications, such as solitary confinement, solely based on several objective factors, such as age and prison disciplinary history, because these factors, as opposed to a prisoner’s sentence or underlying offense, are actually more predictive of potential security concerns. Research cited in the complaint shows that prisoners convicted of murder are not more violent and are no more of a security risk than prisoners convicted of other crimes. Similarly, a 2016 report conducted by the Department of Justice recommends that solitary confinement should be used only when it serves a specific penal purpose and when accompanied by regular review by a multi-disciplinary committee.

The class action lawsuit alleges that prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and that the lack of review of the death row prisoners’ placement in solitary confinement violates their Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. The named plaintiffs and the class are being represented by Nicholas Trenticosta, the law firm of Hogan Lovells, and the Civil Rights Clinic of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

Civil Rights Clinic
Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law
Professor Betsy Ginsberg
Director, Civil Rights Clinic
Hasnaa El Rhermoul & Lekha Menon
Legal Interns
(212) 790-0871 (w); (347) 683-2387 (m)

Hogan Lovells US LLP
212-918-3000 (main)
212-909-0661 (direct)

Nicholas Trenticosta
7100 Saint Charles Ave
New Orleans, LA 70118; (504) 352-8019 (m)