Solitary Confinement Challenges Work Their Way To High Court


Legal challenges to solitary-confinement policies are working their way to the U.S. Supreme Court faster than Justice Anthony Kennedy may have anticipated, reports Last month, Kennedy signaled his concerns in a concurring opinion about the “terrible price” exacted by prolonged solitary confinement on prisoners' mental and physical health, as well as the “many issues” that confinement presents. He said, “In a case that presented the issue, the judiciary may be required, within its proper jurisdiction and authority, to determine whether workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist, and, if so, whether a correctional system should be required to adopt them.”

Less than three weeks later, a petition for review in Prieto v. Clarke was filed in the high court raising a due-process challenge to Virginia's policy of permanently assigning death-sentenced prisoners to solitary confinement. “Some Virginia inmates have been maintained in solitary confinement for over 15 years without any review of whether their conditions are appropriate,” wrote Alfredo Prieto's attorney, Michael Bern. Before the year ends, at least two federal court trials are scheduled in solitary-confinement challenges: a California class action involving Pelican Bay State Prison inmates who raise Eighth Amendment and due-process claims, and a due-process challenge by Albert Woodfox, the last of the “Angola 3,” who has spent more than 40 years in solitary confinement for the 1972 murder of a Louisiana prison guard.

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