According to an article published recently in the USA Today the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) has filed a civil lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons, claiming that the confinement on the Federal death row in Terra Haute, Indiana are “cruel and unusual”
In the lawsuit, the lawyers working for the ACLU argue that individually and collectively the deplorable conditions on death row inflict punishment upon those condemned to death by the Federal Government in excess of what is constitutionally allowed.
To understand the nature of this argument one must first understand the concept of the United States constitutional prohibition against the infliction of “cruel and unusual” punishment. Although simply being incarnated in itself is arguably a severe punishment, the concept of “cruel and unusual” is subjective in nature and basically is defined by what the Court believe reflect societies contemporary values as to how prisoners are treated and the conditions they must live under.
Basic conditions of confinement have long been recognized under this doctrine. When the individual state or the Federal Government imprisons a person after being convicted of a crime, they take on the responsibility to provide for the prisoner’s basic needs, such as food clothing and shelter. The courts have also established that prison officials must provide adequate medical care, including dental and mental care and that prisoners cannot be confined to cells that are unnecessarily unsanitary and might subject the prisoner to the risk of health problems.
Confinement on any death row in America is unlike any other form of imprisonment as only those condemned to death are automatically placed and kept in long term “solitary confinement” for non-punitive reasons. The courts have recognized that temporary conditions of confinement that may be substandard generally are not constitutionally intolerable even if objectively deplorable – but the longer the durations of these deplorable conditions, the greater the impact is on the prisoner. So the fact that death row prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for many years, even decades, makes deplorable conditions constitutionally intolerable.
But the bigger problem is that very few courts are willing to even entertain any legal claim that death row conditions are “cruel and unusual” punishment. I have been on Florida’s death row now for about 25 years so I have long term personal knowledge and experience (please see www.doinglifeondeathrow.com ) In my personal experience I can tell you that the conditions we must “live” under far exceed any objective definition of “cruel and unusual” punishment. Although the prison is legally required to provide for our basic needs, they only do so at the absolute minimum and what is provided simply does not account to basic needs.
Here in Florida the state prison system has contracted a private company to provide our meals. These companies must compete with each other and whoever can feed us for the least amount of money wins the contract. As a result, the quality of food provided is at best barely edible – at worst, lethal. It had become common for death row inmates to develop food poisoning after eating spoiled food. Most of what is served is of such poor quality that very few can actually survive off the food we are provided. Most of us actually live by purchasing food from the prison “canteen”.
Of course this exposes the true motivation for the Florida prisons system to provide meals that are inedible. By law they must provide 3 meals a day, although the law also says these meals must be edible, whether they are or not is up to the court to determine, and the court in Florida simply will not even consider the issue. So the prison knows they can get away with feeding us anything they want – and by doing that they know we must buy food off the canteen.
Last year alone the Florida prison system sold prisoners over 100 million dollars worth of food and they made a substantial profit. If they are forced to feed us meals that are actually edible, then it will reduce the substantial profits being made. But what about those who cannot afford to buy food from the canteen? They simply must go without or ask food from other prisoners.
It’s the same story on all the ‘basic needs” the prison is legally required to provide. To meet their obligation to provide clothing we are each provided one pair of bright orange pants/shirts and a jacket. If we want to have a decent sweater, thermal clothes, pajamas and even extra socks, t-shirts, and a decent pair of shoes we must buy it from the prison canteen. Even here in Florida the winters get very cold (below freezing) so without the ability to purchase these “extra” clothes the best we can do is stay under a coarse wool blanket all winter and that’s assuming you can even get a blanket.
I can only hope that the lawsuit brought against the Federal prison will be successful and through its litigation maybe, just maybe, establish some judicially recognized minimal standards that that can subsequently be used to improve living conditions here on Florida’s death row. I realize that many out there advocate deplorable conditions as a means of maliciously making the condemned suffer. But the inhumanity we allow to be inflicted on even the lowest of the law is an inhumanity inflicted upon all of us.