U.S. court curbs solitary for Pennsylvania inmates no longer facing execution

(Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Thursday said Pennsylvania prisons cannot keep housing inmates in solitary confinement on death row after their death sentences had been vacated, without meaningful reviews of whether such conditions remained necessary.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia said the inmates have a constitutional due process right against such confinement, unless it was required for security and safety reasons, and could be justified on a case-by-case basis.

“Inmates in solitary confinement on death row without active death sentences face the perils of extreme isolation and are at risk of erroneous deprivation of their liberty,” Circuit Judge Theodore McKee wrote for a three-judge panel.

“Accordingly, they have a clearly established due process right under the Fourteenth Amendment to avoid unnecessary and unexamined solitary confinement on death row,” he said.

The appeals court nonetheless agreed with two lower court judges that prison officials who were sued over the old policy deserved qualified immunity, because they interpreted that policy reasonably and might not have known it was suspect.

Thursday’s decision arose from lawsuits by Craig Williams and Shawn Walker, respectively convicted of first-degree murders in 1988 and 1992.

They each sought damages for having spent several years in solitary confinement after their death sentences had been vacated, but before they were resentenced to life in prison.

The office of Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, which defended the prison officials, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

James Bilsborrow, a lawyer for Williams and Walker, in an interview said that despite the qualified immunity finding, the decision “should give prisons pause before confining inmates in solitary confinement indefinitely.”

Many critics of solitary confinement fault what the appeals court called its “dehumanizing effect,” quoting a 2015 opinion from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

The more conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in a separate 2015 opinion with regard to solitary confinement that “years on end of near-total isolation exact a terrible price,” and the judiciary might eventually consider “whether workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist.”

McKee said solitary confinement can trigger “devastating psychological consequences,” and side effects such as anxiety, depression, panic and suicidal thoughts.

He said Williams and Walker were kept in their cells at least 22 hours a day, and when allowed out Williams was often put in a locked cage while Walker faced invasive strip searches.

Pennsylvania argued that such treatment fell within the “normal range” of permissible conditions, and was no more harsh than what similar inmates faced.

The cases are Williams v. Secretary Pennsylvania Department of Corrections et al, 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 14-1469; and Walker v. Farnan et al in the same court, No. 15-1390.