(Adds details from decision, comments from lawyer, criticism of
solitary confinement, case citations, byline)
By Jonathan Stempel
Feb 9 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
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.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by
Bernadette Baum and Tom Brown)