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Solitary Confinement for Former Death Row Prisoner Held Unconstitutional

by David M. Reutter

A Connecticut federal district court held on August 27, 2019 that a former death row prisoner who was kept in solitary confinement had been subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. The court issued injunctive relief and set a hearing for damages.

The ruling came in a civil rights action filed by Richard Reynolds, who had spent the last 23 years in solitary. “Reynolds committed a heinous crime – he murdered a law enforcement officer,” the court wrote. It noted that he was sentenced to death and awaited execution for over two decades.

When Connecticut retroactively abolished the death penalty, Reynolds was resentenced in 2017 to life without the possibility of parole. Section 18-10b of the Connecticut General Statutes decrees that prisoners such as Reynolds would be classified as a “special circumstances high security” prisoner. Such prisoners are only allowed out of their cell for 15-minute periods to eat lunch and dinner and to take a shower. They receive two hours of outdoor recreation six days a week, plus two hours of weekly indoor recreation. Contact visits are prohibited and no interaction other than with clergy, staff and other special circumstances prisoners is allowed.

The district court agreed with Reynolds that his conditions of confinement were inhumane. It found an “overwhelming body of scientific research supports the conclusion that prolonged isolation presents dangerous risks to an inmate’s physical and mental health.” Dr. Stuart Grassian described the conditions of Reynolds’ confinement as “psychologically toxic, cruel, ineffective, and counter productive.”

The court also found the defendants were aware of the mental health risks of prolonged segregation, and that it was immaterial that Reynolds had not yet displayed symptoms of a mental health problem due to his social isolation. Further, it held there was no penological purpose for his continued placement in solitary. It noted Reynolds is a “thoughtful, articulate, and disciplined” individual who is a “far cry from the death row inmate who has ‘nothing to lose in committing assaults and attempting escape.’”

In addition to finding an Eighth Amendment violation, the district court found Reynolds had a liberty interest in avoiding solitary confinement and his due process rights were violated because he was not given notice or a hearing. The defendants “have never made an individualized determination finding that he presents a risk that requires indefinite placement in restrictive housing,” the court wrote. There was no rational basis for the differential treatment of Reynolds and two other prisoners who were removed from death row and placed in general population prior to the state’s repeal of the death penalty.

Finally, the district court found § 18-10b was an unconstitutional bill of attainder (a legislative act declaring someone guilty of a crime and imposing punishment, without a trial). The court noted the legislature had named Reynolds when debating that statute, and enacted it with the intent of punishing him and other former death row prisoners. Accordingly, the court granted Reynolds summary judgment, awarded declaratory and injunctive relief, and ordered a hearing on damages. The defendants have since filed an appeal, which remains pending. See: Reynolds v. Arnone, U.S.D.C. (D. Conn.), Case No. 3:13-cv-01465-SRU; 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 145314. 

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Related legal case

Reynolds v. Arnone