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U.S. District Court Says Rhode Island Department of Corrections Violated “Morris Rules”

Judge John J. McConnell, Jr. also found the DOC had violated another provision of the consent decree by hearing appeals of solitary confinement decisions with a one-man panel instead of the three-member panel required under the terms of that 1972 order, known as the “Morris Rules” after the Morris v. Travisono case from which it stemmed.

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed the motion to challenge the DOC’s amended rules on behalf of prisoner Richard Lee Paiva. The 47-year-old, who is serving a life sentence for the 2009 stabbing death of his mother, Rita, had been held in disciplinary segregation for 60 days following an offense in 2014.

“We think that long terms in isolation are bad for everyone,” said Lynette J. Labinger, who teamed with Sonja L. Deyoe to argue Paiva’s case.

They presented Judge McConnell with an internal memorandum dated January 3, 2020, from a state prison deputy warden, Jeffrey Aceto, sentencing a prisoner to 573 days in solitary.

“From my perspective and the ACLU’s perspective, if there’s one person in protracted segregation, it’s one too many,” Labinger said.

DOC spokesman J.R. Ventura defended the prison system’s changes, calling the Morris Rules “obsolete and outdated. But Judge McConnell said DOC is not free to change them without first consulting his court. The judge refused to find DOC in contempt of the court, though, despite the fact that this is not the first time the prison system has attempted to unilaterally change the Morris Rules. After a 1973 riot, DOC also was slapped by a federal judge for suspending them.

In addition to a 30-day cap on solitary confinement and the right to appeal it to a three-member panel, the Morris Rules also require DOC guards to provide a prisoner with a written charge that is then also investigated by a superior officer.

Deyoe credited Paiva for his persistence in pursuing the case, saying that the prisoner was “concerned with people being held in segregation more than anything.”

“He’s been there,” Deyoe said, “and he has really grave concerns about how this affects people.”

In a June 2020 report titled “Solitary Confinement Is Never the Answer,” the nonprofit Unlock the Box presented research conducted by Solitary Watch, another nonprofit, to argue that prisons across the country have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with “an explosion in the use of solitary confinement.”

At the time of the report’s publication, about 300,000 American prisoners were being held in segregation, an increase of 500 percent since the pandemic began in March 2020.

Research published in March 2020 by Cornell University professor Christopher Wildeman, co-authored by Lars Andersen, a fellow researcher for Rockwool Foundation Research Unit in Denmark, found that even a short stay in solitary confinement “substantially increases the risk of committing more crimes after getting released from prison, and may decrease the probability of employment.”

Related legal case

Paiva v. R.I. Department of Corrections