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Arizona: Lawsuit Spurs Significant Reforms for Death Row Prisoners

by Derek Gilna

A federal lawsuit that settled in March 2017 resulted in the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) drastically improving conditions of confinement for death row prisoners. Pursuant to the settlement, most of the state’s 120 condemned prisoners were moved from solitary confinement in the Browning Unit at the Eyman prison complex to the Central Unit in Florence, where they can leave their close-custody cells to socialize in day rooms, have communal meals and participate in group recreation.

Not all death row prisoners qualify for the reforms instituted due to the settlement. Those who are mentally ill, engage in violent behavior or have gang affiliations are not eligible, but for the rest the reviews have been uniformly positive. The three women on death row were moved into general population units at the Perryville prison complex.

“They’re all a lot happier,” said Assistant Arizona Attorney General Michael Gottfried, speaking at the Capital Case Oversight Committee, an advisory body to the Arizona Supreme Court.

Around 27 condemned prisoners remain in segregation at the Browning Unit, including those with behavioral problems and new arrivals.

Under the terms of the settlement, death row prisoners “will now be classified for housing based upon the risk assessment criteria used for all other Arizona prisoners,” according to the Arizona Capital Representation Project.

Research on solitary confinement has repeatedly shown that it has horrific effects on prisoners’ mental health. A study of almost 250,000 prisoners in New York City’s jail system from January 1, 2010 through January 31, 2013 concluded that “Although only 7.3% of admissions included any solitary confinement, 53.3% of acts of self-harm and 45.0% of acts of potentially fatal self-harm occurred within this group....”

Many criminal justice advocates contend that holding prisoners in segregation for extended periods of time constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

The reforms in Arizona involved much more than just removing death row prisoners from solitary and allowing them more out-of-cell time. They now can take educational courses, work in institutional jobs and have contact visits, including with members of their families, reporters and their attorneys.

ADC officials said they have noticed better behavior among condemned prisoners, who want to avoid disciplinary problems in order to maintain the newly-improved conditions of confinement. Although the prisoners on death row were all convicted of murder, most are not repeat offenders or gang members noted Carson McWilliams, division director for the ADC and a 39-year prison employee. “Their issues are on the outside, which is what got them onto death row,” he said.

Prior to 1997, some Arizona death row prisoners worked outside (but behind prison fences) on chain gangs, but a deadly escape attempt that year led the ADC to adopt a policy of indefinite solitary confinement for prisoners facing execution. [See: PLN, Dec. 1997, p.5; May 1996, p.14]. The lawsuit challenging that policy was filed by death row prisoner Scott Douglas Nordstrom in late 2015.

“It’s hard to explain the deprivation. It weighs on your mind,” said Arizona condemned prisoner Richard Greenway, 49, regarding the 20 years he spent in solitary on death row. “I had no physical contact with anyone except for the officers who would handcuff me.”

Arizona joins California, Colorado, Louisiana, Nevada, Tennessee and Virginia in modifying conditions of confinement for death row prisoners to provide more out-of-cell time, while legal challenges are presently pending in other states, such as Pennsylvania and Florida. However, of the approximately 2,800 prisoners on death row nationwide, over 60 percent are held in segregation. As in Arizona, most of the states that eliminated solitary for condemned prisoners have reported less violence and fewer mental health problems on death row.

Although the ADC lawsuit ended in August 2017 after the settlement was finalized, the district court retained jurisdiction to enforce its terms, including the award of attorney fees. On April 2, 2018, the court awarded a total of $70,681.75 in fees to Nordstrom’s counsel plus $351.20 in expenses. Nordstrom was represented by the Arizona Capital Representation Project and the law firm of Jackson & Oden. See: Nordstrom v. Ryan, U.S.D.C. (D. Ariz.), Case No. 2:15-cv-02176-DGC-JZB. 

Sources: www.azcentral.com, www.seattletimes.com, www.themarshallproject.org, www.azcapitalproject.org

Related legal case

Nordstrom v. Ryan