Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Automatic Placement of Death Row Prisoner in Segregation Does Not Violate Due Process

Automatic Placement of Death Row Prisoner in Segregation Does Not Violate Due Process

by David M. Reutter

A Virginia federal district court held in November 2013 that automatic and indefinite placement of a death-sentenced prisoner in solitary confinement constitutes a deprivation of liberty without due process of law. The state appealed, and the Fourth Circuit reversed.

The district court’s ruling came in a civil rights action brought by Virginia death row prisoner Alfredo Prieto. The case originally included an Eighth Amendment challenge to the prohibition on virtually all contact visits for death row prisoners. That claim was dismissed, leaving only a Fourteenth Amendment claim challenging the automatic placement of death-sentenced prisoners into segregation.

On that claim, the district court said the conditions on death row were “uniquely severe” and “undeniably extreme and atypical of conditions in the general population units at” Sussex I State Prison (SISP).

Those conditions included being held in a cell for nearly 23 hours a day, continuous cell lighting, only five hours of recreation per week in an area slightly larger than Prieto’s cell, no ability to see the sky, and deprivation of most forms of human contact. “His only real break from the monotony owes to a television and compact disc player in his cell and limited interactions with prison officials,” the court wrote. “[T]he conditions on death row are a good deal more restrictive than those experienced by general population inmates at SISP.”

The district court found Prieto had “already spent five years in this placement, and there is no end in sight.” Further, the “indefinite, long-term confinement in severe conditions” was based on “few, if any, legitimate penological interests.”

The court rejected the Virginia Department of Corrections’ (VDOC) position that its policy toward death row prisoners was required because they “have nothing to lose” and “are [less] deserving of limited prisoner resources because they will never reenter society.”

The district court compared death row prisoners to prisoners with life sentences without the possibility of parole. The VDOC’s stated reasons applied to both categories of prisoners equally, yet the lifers were assigned to the general population and could avail themselves of limited programming opportunities.

Having found that Prieto had a protected liberty interest in his conditions of confinement, the court turned to the issue of what process was due. Whether or not a classification review would result in “less-restrictive conditions or a lower-security facility, it is the evaluative process itself that vindicates his constitutional rights,” the district court held.

As such, the court gave VDOC officials the option of providing Prieto with an individualized classification hearing or altering his conditions of confinement so they no longer impose an atypical and significant hardship. On December 19, 2013, the district court awarded Prieto $151,734.39 in attorney fees plus costs of $13,661.60 as the prevailing party. See: Prieto v. Clarke, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Vir.), Case No. 1:12-cv-01199-LMB-IDD; 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 161783.

The state appealed and the Fourth Circuit reversed on March 10, 2015, finding that “atypical and harsh confinement conditions, standing alone,” do not give rise to a state-created liberty interest. That is, since no state statute, regulation or policy established a liberty interest in avoiding the onerous conditions of death row, Prieto could not challenge those conditions via a procedural due process claim.

The Court of Appeals acknowledged that Prieto could raise a valid due process challenge if he could “point to a Virginia law or policy providing him with an expectation of avoiding the conditions of his confinement and demonstrate that those conditions are harsh and atypical in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life.”

While the appellate court said it did “not in any way minimize the harshness of Virginia’s regime,” it concluded “[t]he record is clear that under Virginia law, a capital offender has no expectation or interest in avoiding confinement on death row.” Accordingly, it reversed the judgment of the district court and the award of attorney fees and costs.

Circuit Judge James A. Wynn, Jr. issued a dissenting opinion, stating, “At the end of the day, all of this ink is being spilled over whether Virginia needs to provide minimalist procedural safeguards ... to less than ten prisoners – the current number of inmates on Virginia’s death row.” See: Prieto v. Clarke, 780 F.3d 245 (4th Cir. 2015), petition for cert. filed.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal cases

Prieto v. Clarke

Prieto v. Clarke