Texas Death Row Prisoners Sue Over Automatic Solitary Confinement
The state's "arbitrary requirement to house all male death row prisoners in permanent solitary confinement does not promote safety and security, is inconsistent with correctional best practices, and serves no penological purpose," the lawsuit claims.
A group of Texas death row prisoners is suing the state's prison system, arguing that its policy of holding male death row inmates in indefinite solitary confinement violates their constitutional rights.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday on behalf of a group of male inmates at a single facility, argues that the policy has had devastating effects on the prisoners' 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 specifically—and social isolation more generally—in a substantial body of peer-reviewed literature spanning decades. There is no longer any question that prolonged solitary confinement causes severe harm," the 45-page complaint states.
Texas is not alone in automatically confining death row inmates in isolation. As of 2021, 12 states also practiced automatic solitary confinement for death row prisoners.
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 for "recreation," during which "they are moved to individual concrete-and-metal cages and permitted to exercise alone."
Further, the complaint argues that the state has no justification for such harsh measures. "Defendants' arbitrary requirement to house all male death row prisoners in permanent solitary confinement does not promote safety and security, is inconsistent with correctional best practices, and serves no penological purpose."
The effect of this policy has been devastating. Several of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit have been in solitary confinement for decades—with one plaintiff serving almost 30 years in solitary confinement. Due to their isolation, plaintiffs have reported dramatic declines in their physical and mental health, such as significant weight gain, hypertension, depression, and PTSD.
Further, prison officials have made it incredibly difficult for these death row inmates to get appropriate medical care or access their lawyers. Medical visits "are sporadic, and mental and physical health providers are often forced to converse with their patients openly on the row," the complaint reads. "Legal visits can take weeks to schedule and occur in a public setting where conversations are easily overheard."
The suit argues, among other complaints, that such prolonged isolation violates plaintiffs' Eighth Amendment rights. Several federal courts have acknowledged the Eighth Amendment concerns created by lengthy solitary confinement. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit—which has jurisdiction in Texas—has "acknowledged that it is 'more than plausible' that decades of solitary confinement can cause serious physical and psychological deterioration 'sufficiently serious to invoke Eighth Amendment concerns,'" according to the complaint.
This lawsuit is the latest in a series of attempts to curtail the use of solitary confinement in Texas prisons. Inmate Dennis Wayne Hope, who has been in solitary confinement for almost 30 years, asked the Supreme Court last year to take up his case, alleging that this practice constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Currently, several inmates in Texas prisons are on a hunger strike, protesting the state's use of solitary confinement.
Prolonged solitary confinement is endemic in U.S. prisons. As of July 2021, almost 50,000 people were held in isolation in U.S. prisons—around 3 percent of the total prison population. In Texas, almost 4,000 people were estimated to be held in isolation—and over two-thirds of those inmates had been held for more than a year.
"Decades of evidence shows the irreversible physical and psychological harm long-term solitary confinement causes," David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, told Reason's C.J. Ciaramella last year. "There is no defensible reason for prisons and other detention facilities to keep using long term solitary confinement, which is recognized as a form of torture."