Louisiana Record

Monday, October 14, 2019

Death row inmates sue Louisiana officials over solitary confinement policy

By Melissa Busch | Apr 8, 2017

BATON ROUGE - Death row inmates at a Louisiana prison filed a class-action suit, claiming Louisiana officials violated their constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment by placing them in solitary confinement for long periods of time.

Marcus Hamilton, Winthrop Eaton and Michael Perry filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, Middle District of Louisiana, on March 29 on behalf of the 70 death row inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, claiming they must spend 23 hours of each day in 8-feet-by-10-feet windowless cells. The plaintiffs, all convicted killers, are confined to cells “the size of an average home bathroom,” according to the suit. The suit names several Angola wardens and James LeBlanc, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety Corrections, as defendants.

Nicholas Trenticosta, one of the attorneys representing the inmates, told the Louisiana Record that death row inmates should be housed like other prisoners.

“Outside of death row, every inmate is classified based upon many factors," Trenticosta said. "Most live in dorms, most have jobs. Some are held in solitary cells based upon their behavior in prison, and they are provided regular reviews on whether they should remain in solitary."

Many of the death row inmates have been in isolation for more than two decades. The suit claims the prisoners are not in isolation due to disciplinary issues.

Trenticosta said those in cells live with another person and are allowed out for work and various prison activities.

“Many of the former death row prisoners, those who have had their sentences permanently reversed to a life sentence, are living in dorms, have exemplary behavior, are contributing members of the prison, such as working as hospice volunteers, inmate ministers, and participate in the prison's organizations and programs," he said. "Some have achieved A-trustee status, the highest classification at Angola.”

Long-term confinement under these conditions constitutes torture because it leads to “severe and potentially irreversible physical and psychological harms,” the complaint said. Prisoners kept in isolation often suffer with severe anxiety, depression, claustrophobia and hallucinations, according to the lawsuit.

Trenticosta said this case is the first of its kind in the state.

There are two similar individual claims, including one that was filed by a convicted murderer, Alfredo Prieto, in Virginia.

“Neither was a class action,” Trenticosta said.

The case filed in Virginia on behalf of Prieto was appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court declined to take up the case in October 2015.

Prieto was executed before the justices could meet and decide whether to take up his claim. After the execution, Prieto's attorneys tried to get the court to allow a different inmate with similar issues to step in, but the court rejected it and dismissed the petition.

According to the lawsuit, many corrections officials nationwide promote prison systems based on factors such as age and prison disciplinary history, as opposed to a prisoner’s sentence, because those factors are more predictive of potential security concerns.

The one hour each day that inmates are not confined, they are permitted to shower, use the phone, and walk up and down the cell tiers. Three days per week, Trenticosta said inmates can go into an enclosed 10-feet-by-10-feet pen alone.

Though a 2016 report conducted by the Department of Justice recommends the use of solitary confinement only when it serves a specific penal purpose and when accompanied by regular review, most states’ death rows operate the same way.  

“A small minority of states do not engage in this practice and even one, Missouri, we understand integrates death-sentenced prisoners into general population,” Trenticosta said.

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U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana