Death Row Solitary Confinement Challenged in Virginia

Rehabilitation and inmate care is the primary concern for many corrections officers. However, caring for individuals convicted of violent crimes and serving death sentences can complicate things. Many prisons will keep death row inmates under solitary confinement as a punishment and as a means of protecting the rest of the prisoners from potentially dangerous and volatile individuals.

In Virginia, this practice is coming under scrutiny. Virginia officials challenged a suit brought against the state by several death row inmates who were subjected to solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day on a permanent basis.

U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema overturned the Virginia officials’ challenge and believes the case should see the light. Brinkema has ruled in favor of reform for the treatment of convicts under the death penalty in the past, having stated that changing moral and legal standards may necessitate reform. Long-term solitary confinement is coming under scrutiny in cases all over the country. With some inmates spending more than a decade awaiting execution, inefficient and inhumane death row practices are leading some judges, like a federal judge in California last year, to rule the death penalty to be unconstitutional entirely.

The inmates at the crux of the suit were convicted of horrible crimes. The death of a police officer, the rape and murder of a sleeping woman, and killing children are just a part of their heinous rap sheet. However, the suit itself is not challenging whether they are or are not deserving of punishment, but instead whether the punishment they are receiving is the same as the one they were sentenced to.

Advocates for the inmates and members of the mental health community claim that the distress suffered from extended solitary confinement constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. While past rulings in the district have stated that solitary confinement is not a punishment in and of itself and that comfortable prisons are not necessarily mandated by the constitution, the suit hopes to revisit this position.

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Judge Brinkema’s willingness to review the case shows that the Virginia courts might be ready to revisit whether solitary confinement should be considered an additional punishment and in turn whether the current practices in Virginia prisons are a violation of due process by imposing this secondary sentence.

However, Brinkema has made rulings on the death penalty in the past that have been overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals, and even when this case comes to a close there is no guarantee that the care of death row inmates will see reform.