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Third Circuit: No Death Row Confinement after Death Sentences Vacated

by Christopher Zoukis

The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has ruled against two Pennsylvania prisoners who were held in solitary confinement on death row for years after their death sentences were vacated. In the course of its opinion, however, the appellate court made it clear that in the future the state may not subject prisoners to “the deprivations of death row” once a death sentence is no longer in effect without providing procedural safeguards.

Craig Williams and Shawn T. Walker were both condemned to death but their sentences were later reduced to life without parole. Prison officials forced both men to remain on death row while the state appealed, even though they were no longer facing death sentences. Williams and Walker separately sued the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, arguing that prison officials had “violated their Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process by continuing to subject them to the deprivations of solitary confinement on death row without meaningful review of their placements after their death sentences had been vacated.”

In a 59-page opinion released on February 9, 2017, the Third Circuit held prisoners have a “due process liberty interest” in avoiding the conditions of protracted solitary confinement on death row after they are no longer subject to death sentences. Unfortunately for Williams and Walker, that due process right was not “clearly established” at the time of their confinement, thus the defendants were entitled to summary judgment based on qualified immunity.

But the Court of Appeals went further in its ruling, and much of the Court’s opinion was devoted to discussing the extraordinarily harmful nature of solitary confinement. Citing findings such as “strikingly toxic to mental functioning,” “psychologically painful ... traumatic and harmful,” and leading to “[d]epression, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosis, hallucinations, paranoia, claustrophobia and suicidal ideation,” the Third Circuit questioned the continued use of a practice deemed barbaric by the U.S. Supreme Court more than a century ago.

“The results of all of [the solitary confinement] studies are really neither surprising, nor novel,” the appellate court wrote. “Over one hundred years ago, well before the full emergence of the empirical research in this area, the Supreme Court recognized that solitary confinement caused ‘[a] considerable number of the prisoners [to fall], after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane.”

The Court of Appeals concluded by noting the “jurisprudential shift” toward recognizing that prisoners have a due process right to avoid prolonged solitary confinement. The Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and now Third Circuits all recognize that extended placement in solitary triggers constitutional protections. See: Williams v. Wetzel and Walker v. Farnan, 848 F.3d 549 (3d Cir. 2017), cert. denied. 

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