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Oklahoma Breaks Pattern of Protracted, Expensive Prison Conditions Litigation

by Ed Lyon

For the last 50 to 60 years, improvements in prison conditions have typically only come about through lengthy, adversarial litigation. During and after losing such lawsuits, state prison systems often delay, fail to adhere to consent decrees and are sometimes cited for contempt until, finally, they grudgingly embrace reforms.

There are two major losers in these fights: The taxpaying public that foots the bills for the state’s lawyers as well as the prisoners’ attorneys (when they prevail), and the prisoners themselves – who continue to live in unsafe or inhumane conditions until the case is resolved. In the end, positive change usually comes about anyway, in spite of protracted legal fights.

Recent litigation in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Virginia has resulted in positive reforms for death row prisoners. [See, e.g.: PLN, Dec. 2019, p.32; Oct. 2018, p.34]. Were it not for the efforts of the ACLU, its National Prison Project and various state ACLU chapters, as well as the Abolitionist Law Center and Southern Poverty Law Center, it is doubtful that anyone else could muster the legal muscle needed to help death-sentenced prisoners. Many states hold condemned prisoners in solitary confinement – essentially closet-sized cells with toilets – for decades, before finally administering the government-sanctioned coup de grace.

In July 2019, a group of civil rights organizations, including the Oklahoma ACLU and Prison Law Office, sent a demand letter to the director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC).

The letter outlined a number of changes that needed to be made regarding prisoners on death row – including the use of solitary confinement and classifying all such prisoners as maximum-security – and promised litigation if those reforms were not carried out.

In a response that exhibited an unusual display of fiscal and common sense, as well as a broad streak of humanity, DOC Director Scott Crow agreed to make the changes without litigation. In his September 26, 2019 response to the Oklahoma ACLU, Scott stated a number of reforms would begin immediately. The DOC’s death row used to be housed at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in H Unit, which has been likened to individual tombs with recreation areas that have no natural light or fresh air. There were no communal areas or contact visitation, and condemned prisoners ate alone. Congregate worship services were discontinued in 2009.

Death row prisoners will now be housed in A Unit, which has outdoor recreation facilities, and prisoners may speak with each other and have contact visits. Communal meals will be allowed as well as congregate worship services for “qualifying individuals.” Thirty-three condemned prisoners were moved to A Unit by early December 2019, while 10 remain in H Unit, reportedly “for their safety or the safety of others.”

There is still room for improvement, though. Oklahoma’s death row prisoners continue to be held in solitary confinement – either single-celled or double-celled. 



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