Federal Appeals Court Bars Automatic Solitary Confinement for Former Death Row Prisoners

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on February 9 declared unconstitutional Pennsylvania's long-standing practice of automatically keeping capital defendants in solitary confinement after courts had overturned their death sentences. Saying that, “Scientific research and evolving jurisprudence has made the harms of solitary confinement clear,” the unanimous three-judge panel ruled that prisoners whose death sentences have been overturned have a constitutionally protected interest against being held in solitary confinement, unless the state could show, after an individualized assessment, that such custody was necessary for security and safety reasons. Shawn Walker and Craig Williams, the former death row prisoners who brought the suit, had spent 14 and 22 years, respectively, in solitary confinement on death row before courts vacated their death sentences. Then each was kept on death row without a death sentence for the six additional years it took to conduct the resentencing proceedings in their cases. In barring continued treatment of inmates like Walker and Williams as death-row prisoners without any demonstrated security need to do so, former Chief Circuit Judge Theodore McKee warned that "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. Accordingly, they have a clearly established due process right under the Fourteenth Amendment to avoid unnecessary and unexamined solitary confinement on death row." According to a July 2015 DPIC analysis of Pennsylvania death row, 115 former death-row prisoners whose convictions or death sentences had been overturned in post-conviction proceedings had been resentenced to life or less, or acquitted. Most had been kept in death-row solitary confinement without active death sentences before being resentenced or exonerated.

(M. J. Stern, "Solitary Confinement Is a Great American Shame," Slate, February 10, 2017; J. Roebuck, "Appeals court halts automatic solitary for Pennsylvania inmates no longer facing execution," The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 9, 2017; J. Stempel, "U.S. court curbs solitary for Pennsylvania inmates no longer facing execution," Reuters, February 9, 2017; R. Dunham, "Pennsylvania Capital Post-Conviction Reversals and Subsequent Dispositions," July 1, 2015.) Read the Third Circuit opinion in Walker v.  Farnan, No. 15-1390, and Williams v. Secretary, Pa. Dept. of Corrections, No. 14-1469, here. See Death Row.