Weitz & Luxenberg has secured a decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit that recognizes a constitutionally protected liberty interest that prevents the State of Pennsylvania from indefinitely housing death row inmates in solitary confinement after they have been granted a resentencing hearing. The decision ensures that these prisoners will not be forced to remain in solitary confinement without a review of their status.
“Research has shown that forced isolation can terribly impact both mental and physical health, and until now many death row prisoners have had to endure the horrors of solitary confinement even after their sentences were overturned,” said James Bilsborrow, associate attorney for Weitz & Luxenberg who represented the plaintiffs in the case. “This decision is a huge step forward for the development of humane prison conditions here in Pennsylvania and across the country.”
Plaintiffs Spent Years in Solitary Confinement After Death Sentences Were Vacated
Bilsborrow represented plaintiffs Shawn T. Walker and Craig Williams, who both spent years in solitary confinement on death row after their death sentences were overturned. Walker spent roughly 20 years in solitary confinement on death row, with eight of those years coming after he had been granted a resentencing hearing. Williams spent 22 years on death row, with six of those years coming after he was granted resentencing.
After his death sentence was overturned, Walker remained in a windowless 7 feet by 12 feet cell for almost 24 hours a day. He was only allowed to leave his cell five times a week for two hours at a time for exercise in a restricted area known as the “dog cage.” However, he had to undergo an intrusive strip search before entering the “dog cage,” which was so physically and mentally invasive that he chose not to leave his cell for open air exercise for almost seven years.
Williams endured a similar experience to Walker’s. When he was allowed out of his cell to go to the prison yard, library, or shower, he was kept in “a small locked cage that continued to restrict his movement and freedom of association,” according to the judges’ opinion in the case.
Court Found That Solitary Confinement in These Instances Violates Due Process Clause of 14th Amendment
The Court of Appeals specifically found that the Due Process Clause of the 14teenth Amendment limits the State’s ability to indefinitely confine inmates in solitary confinement without a meaningful review of their housing status.
In their opinion deciding the case, Circuit Judges Theodore McKee, Julio M. Fuentes and Jane Richards Roth wrote, “[S]cientific research and the evolving jurisprudence has made the harms of solitary confinement clear: Mental well-being and one’s sense of self are at risk. We can think of few values more worthy of constitutional protection than these core facets of human dignity.”
Bilsborrow, a New York metro area Super Lawyers Rising Star, provided pro bono representation to the plaintiffs in this case.