[JURIST] The Washington Supreme Court ruled [opinion, PDF] 7-2 on Thursday that holding death row inmates in solitary confinement indefinitely is not an impermissible increase in the severity of punishment. The suit was initiated by Jonathan Gentry, who was sentenced to death in 1991 for the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl and is the longest serving death row inmate in the state [Seattle Times report]. In 2008, budget constraints forced Washington to close the Special Housing Unit (SHU) [AP report] which afforded death row inmates family contact visits and daily interaction with other prisoners. Gentry alleged that the imposition of solitary confinement after the closure of the SHU was an impermissible ex post facto [LII backgrounder] punishment. In rejecting Gentry’s petition, the court noted:
Mr. Gentry does not challenge his conviction or general confinement to prison as … unlawful. Instead, he claims that his removal from the SHU and placement in the IMU [solitary confinement] has subjected him to more restrictive conditions of confinement in violation of the prohibition on ex post facto punishment. Gentry’s claim presupposes a liberty interest in residing in the SHU or in retaining the privileges afforded there. The Washington and United States Constitutions do not create a liberty interest in a particular form of prison housing, absent allegations of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment, which Gentry does not assert.
The dissenting [opinion, PDF] justices noted that budget limitations could not fully account for the suspension of all privileges associated with the SHU and that insufficient evidence existed to rule properly on Gentry’s petition.
Ballooning prison populations and budget constraints have stretched prison systems and raised numerous prisoner rights issues. In late December the US District Court for the District of Colorado issued a preliminary injunction [order, PDF] against a county jail policy that restricted outgoing correspondence to 4×6 postcards provided by the jail. After that decision, the jail discontinued that policy [ACLU press release]. In November, the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments on a federal court order to reduce the California prison population [JURIST report]. The order would require the release of between 36,000 and 45,000 inmates as part of a plan to reduce chronic overcrowding for the past 20 years. In September, Canada announced $105 million allocated for new prison cells [JURIST report] at existing locations in anticipation of expanding prison populations.
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