Several weeks ago lawyers representing death sentenced prisoners in Florida formally filed a Federal lawsuit against FDOC Secretary Julie Jones, as well as Florida State Prison Warden Barry Reddisch and Union Correctional Institution Warden Kevin Jordan, arguing that the continuous solitary confinement of death row prisoners violates the US constitutions provisions of due process and 8th amendment prohibition against infliction of "cruel and unusual" punishment. The case is now pending before the US district court in Jacksonville, Florida.
The only real surprise is that it has taken so long that lawyers to file this lawsuit, as the issue of whether the placement of all death sentenced prisoners in solitary confinement is constitutional has been debated for many decades. In fact, in 1890 (127 years ago!) the United States Supreme Court recognized that solitary of a death row prisoner is unconstitutional - but our courts have since grown cold and politically indifferent to these claims - until in recent years several justices on the Supreme Court have spoken out about it, and condemned the long term solitary confinement of death sentenced prisoners.
At issue is that in Florida and most other states, all prisoners sentenced to death are automatically placed and continuously kept in single man cells that are without doubt solitary confinement", where they remain as long as they are under a sentence of death.
This often amounts to not merely months or years, but decade after decade of solitary confinement (see: Death Row, The Ninth Ring - by Michael Lambrix). Most of those sentenced to death are subsequently removed when their conviction or death sentence is vacated. Of the almost 1000 men and women sentenced to death in Florida since 1974, 26 have been judicially exonerated and released due to innocence, while less than 90 were executed, and at least 40 other succumbed to death by "natural causes" or suicide. At this time, approximately 350 prisoners remain on Florida death row, although in coming months that number will drop as more of Florida death row inmates will have their illegally imposed death sentence vacated under Hurst v Florida.
I have been on death row, and in solitary confinement, for over 33 years. I was 23 years old when I arrived here at Florida State Prison in March 1984 and I'm now 57 years old. You can read about my death row experience in my series "Alcatraz of the South", posted at the website "Minutes Before Six" and you can also download my book To live and Die on Death Row for free at my website Southern injustice.
I do realize that there are some who believe that all prisoners, especially those sentenced to death, automatically deserve to be treated in a way that inflicts as much pain and suffering as possible. That says a lot more about who they are - their own moral deficiencies - than it does about us. Making a conscious decision to inflict pain and suffering upon another cannot be morally justified under any circumstances - one would like to think that it's not who we are as a society.
But the inconvenient truth is that while most Americans claim to be "Christians" we are in fact a vengeance driven society that only too often finds gratification in the suffering of others. It's not enough to merely hold someone accountable for a crime - we demand that the transgressor suffer and that's why all death sentenced prisoners are placed and kept in continuous solitary confinement.
Just as much as every person has the capacity for good, within each of us without exception is an equal, if not greater, capacity for pure evil. And while it is easy to recognize evil in another, few are capable of recognizing that same evil within themselves.
In the recently filed Federal lawsuit legal counsel cites the numerous recognized studies as well as a long history of court cases, that explain why prolonged and even indefinite solitary confinement is torture, as it does inflict immense pain and suffering. It's true purpose is to psychologically and physically "break" the prisoners - to reduce them to something less than human before killing them, as stated at length in the book "Death Work: A Study of the Modern Execution Process" by Robert Johnson.
Some would argue that decades in death row solitary confinement isn't all that bad - here in Florida we are allowed a small TV, an MP3 player, and other comfort items (if we can afford to purchase them). But that unreasonably ignores the true effects of solitary confinement. What really breaks the person is not those tangible comfort items, or lack thereof. Rather, it is the inability to physically and socially interact with another human being. Although I can talk to my immediate cell neighbors, I cannot see them or physically interact with them. I'm not allowed to sit down at a table in the prison dining hall and eat a meal with others as every meal is served in my cell. I'm not allowed to attend religious services and "worship" like most other prisoners are allowed to do. I cannot get out of my cell and work, or even walk around. It has been 34 years since I touched dirt or grass as the few hours I'm allowed to go outside is limited to being on a concrete yard and enclosed with fencing and razor wire.
It is an environment that is designed to methodically break the prisoner, to make him or her into a compliant form of flesh and bone, incapable of resisting - and often reduced to welcoming that final act of state sanctioned murder they call an "execution".
It's that systematic deprivation of the ability to meaningful interact with others that very slowly erodes your will to live and strips your humanity from you. If we were dogs or cats, every animal rights group in the world would be screaming for the criminal prosecution of those responsible for inflicting this suffering upon us - but that same measure of empathy and compassion is not extended to condemned prisoners - very few are willing to speak up for our humane treatment.
In the many years I've spent in solitary confinement, I've seen many men broken and reduced to insanity - or abandon the will to live and commit suicide. Hopefully this Federal lawsuit will force prison officials to treat condemned prisoners humanely and end the decades of solitary confinement - and not necessarily because the prisoner deserves it, but because as a society we must be better than that.