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Rhode Island’s Civil Death Law Bars Prisoners from Filing Lawsuits in State Court

by Dale Chappell

Most people have heard about the death penalty. But how many have heard of someone being declared “civilly dead” and stripped of their civil rights after receiving a life sentence, even if they are eligible for parole?

Welcome to Rhode Island, where the concept of “civil death” remains alive and well. [See: PLN, Oct. 2018, p.53]. While most states have either declared their civil death statutes unconstitutional or no longer enforce them, Rhode Island continues to use the archaic law against prisoners to bar them from filing lawsuits challenging prison conditions.

Civil death laws extend back to ancient Greek and Roman times, when people awaiting execution were stripped of their citizenship rights, making them in effect “civilly dead.” They could not marry or get divorced, own property or enter into any kind of civil agreement or contract. Later, European countries invoked “outlawry,” which, like civil death, declared that offenders were “outside the law” and therefore had no civil rights. Eventually England adopted civil death laws, which were brought to the U.S. by the colonists.

As the states formed they adopted civil death statutes. In 1871, the Virginia Supreme Court held that a person convicted of a felony lost “all his personal rights” and was considered “a slave of the state.” Over a century later, in 1976, the Missouri Supreme Court declared that state’s civil death law unconstitutional, calling it “archaic, outmoded and medieval.”

Yet Rhode Island hangs on to its civil death law, allowing prison officials to invoke the statute as an affirmative defense against legal actions filed by life-sentenced prisoners. In one case, Cody-Allen Zab, who was serving a life sentence, tried to seal the record of his marriage, which he contended was invalid. The Rhode Island Supreme Court held on March 26, 2019 that Zab “had no legal right to seek to have the record of his marriage sealed because he is deemed by statute to be ‘civilly dead.’ Moreover, the appeal from the Family Court also is not properly before us, because plaintiff is civilly dead and therefore he has no right to litigate this issue in the Supreme Court.” See: Zab v. Zab, 203 A.3d 1175 (R.I. 2019).

Sonja Deyoe, an attorney who represented Zab in another case where he was injured while incarcerated, noted that “The state could choose not to feed these individuals, deny medical care, torture them, or do anything short of execute them,” pointing out that the civil death law means prisoners “have absolutely no redress available to them from the state court.”

The Zab ruling wasn’t the first time the courts had heard challenges to Rhode Island’s civil death law, but the state Supreme Court has upheld the statute as valid. When lawmakers passed a bill to repeal the law in 2007, then-Governor Donald Carcieri vetoed it. “Persons who are sentenced to the remainder of their natural lives in prison are there because they have been found by a jury of their peers to have committed the most serious possible crimes against society,” he wrote. “The loss of property, and even the right to marry, is not unreasonable.” In other words, civil death is yet another acceptable form of punishment.

The prohibition on prisoners’ right to vote, and their loss of other civil rights, also stem from archaic civil death laws. 

“It’s a Byzantine statute and it results in individuals who receive life sentences in the State of Rhode Island being deprived of all their civil rights which includes their First Amendment right to go to court to defend against the abuses of their jailers,” Deyoe said in a statement. She added she has since filed three other lawsuits, all challenging Rhode Island’s civil death statute as being unconstitutional. 


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