Death row inmates in Texas are sued for solitary confinement
A group of death row inmates filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against the Texas prison system over its policy of mandatory, indefinite solitary confinement for all death row inmates, saying it causes severe physical and psychological harm.
The lawsuit alleges that the policy severely restricts their access to human interaction, medical care, and legal representation because they are confined to 8-by-12-foot (2.4 by 3.7-meter) cells all but two hours of the day.
Conditions awaiting death row in Texas have been described as some of the most brutal in the country. “The plaintiffs in this case are seeking exemption from the conditions described as torture,” said Peter Van Toll, one of the prisoners’ attorneys.
The class action lawsuit, filed in Houston federal court on behalf of 182 death row inmates, alleges that the solitary confinement policy “does not address any legitimate need for security or punishment, and serves no purpose other than to increase the psychological suffering” of the inmates.
One of the four inmates filing the suit, Mark Robertson, 54, has spent 31 years on death row, with 21 of those in solitary confinement.
Since Robertson was placed in solitary confinement, the lawsuit says, his heart health has deteriorated, he has developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and his mental health problems have worsened.
Amanda Hernandez, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said the agency does not comment on the pending lawsuit.
All male prisoners on death row in Texas are housed in the Polunsky Unit, located outside Livingston, which is about 75 miles (120 kilometers) northeast of Houston. Seven female inmates on death row in the state, who are not part of the lawsuit, are in a separate prison.
The lawsuit comes as a group of Texas prisoners has been on hunger strike since January 10 to protest the state’s solitary confinement policy. It is unclear how many took part, as activists estimated the number at several hundred at the start of the strike and the Truth and Dignity Commission said it was about 70.
As of Thursday, Hernandez said, nine were still on strike, and none of the inmates who took part required medical attention.
Solitary confinement, which the Truth and Dignity Commission referred to as “security detention,” Hernandez said, is used with inmates who are found to be members of dangerous prison gangs, are in danger of escape or have committed multiple serious assault or disciplinary offenses.
She added that solitary confinement represents less than 3% of the system’s inmates and is “used judiciously”, with procedures in place to review and appeal the inmate’s continued stay in such confinement.
Twelve states have automatically placed death row prisoners in automatic solitary confinement for prolonged periods, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that provides analysis and information on the death penalty. Since 2017, six states, including Arizona and Pennsylvania, have ended such policies.
The US Supreme Court is currently hearing the case of Texas inmate Dennis Wayne Hope, whose lawyers are asking the Supreme Court to determine whether decades of solitary confinement could violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Hope, who was convicted of aggravated robbery, had been in solitary confinement since 1994 after trying to escape.
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This story was originally published Jan 26, 2023 6:35 PM.