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Court Lifts Solitary Confinement for Some Death Row Inmates in Pennsylvania

By William Vogeler, Esq. on February 16, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Charles Dickens wrote that the law is an ass.

In Oliver Twist, the author suggested that sometimes the law makes no sense. In the case of Mr. Bumble, he said "the law is a ass" for making a man legally responsible for his wife's thievery.

With apologies to Dickens, as well as Craig Williams and Shawn Walker, it appears no one was legally responsible for their 14 years in unlawful solitary confinement. The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals said Williams and Walker had been denied due process, but that prison officials were not to blame because the law was not clear.

Fair and Clear Warning to Officials

"Our holding today that Plaintiffs had a protected liberty interest provides 'fair and clear warning' that, despite our ruling against Plaintiffs, qualified immunity will not bar such claims in the future," the court said.

The decision does not directly affect the state's 173 death-row inmates who are in solitary confinement. However, it gave "fair and clear warning" to officials keeping inmates in solitary confinement who are awaiting new sentencing.

Confinement Pending Determination

The cases came to the appeals court together from Pennsylvania, where Williams and Walker each had been sentenced to death for separate murders. While awaiting execution, they were placed in solitary confinement.

Each man won resentencing hearings, but continued in solitary confinement pending new determinations. Williams spent six more years in solitary, and Walker spent eight more years there. They were ultimately resentenced to life without parole respectively and placed with the general prison populations.

Williams and Walker filed separate lawsuits for damages against prison officials, but a federal judge granted summary judgment based on qualified immunity. On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed.

Extreme Sensory Deprivation

However, the court agreed with the plaintiffs that they had been denied their constitutional rights while in solitary. The court detailed the "extreme sensory deprivation and isolation endemic in confinement on death row."

The men were confined to small cells with no windows, leaving for no more than two hours a day for exercise, showers and other privileges in continuously strict confinement. Walker, who developed tremors while in solitary, voluntarily gave up exercise time in the "dog cage" for seven years because he didn't want to be strip-searched every time.

Reviewing decisions from other courts and research, the judges concluded that solitary confinement could trigger "devastating psychological consequences" and "social death." Anxiety, panic, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosis, hallucinations, paranoia, claustrophobia, and suicidal ideation are frequent results, the court said.

"For the reasons we have discussed, we now hold that Plaintiffs had a due process liberty interest in avoiding the extreme sensory deprivation and isolation endemic in
confinement on death row after their death sentences had been vacated," Judge Theordore A. McKee wrote for the unanimous panel.

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