The Supreme Court seems eager to hear a case on the constitutionality of prolonged solitary confinement, but is a pending Virginia case the one to provide a test of the issue? The New York Times explores that question. “Years on end of near total isolation exact a terrible price,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in June. Justice Stephen Breyer echoed the point that same month. An appeal from Virginia materialized quickly. Now the justices must weigh whether it is a good vehicle to serve as the basis for a major decision on extended solitary confinement, which much of the world considers torture.
The case asks the sort of focused and incremental question that the justices may find attractive: May states automatically put all death row inmates in solitary confinement? Virginia Attorney General Mark filed a brief urging the court to turn down the appeal. Herring said Virginia plans to execute the inmate who brought the challenge, Alfredo Prieto, on Oct. 1. Herring also contends that Virginia is the wrong place to examine the issue of prolonged solitary confinement on death row because its capital justice system is exceptionally efficient. Inmates in other states can spend decades in solitary confinement, but Virginia generally executes condemned inmates seven to 10 years after their convictions. Prieto has been on death row for about seven years. That was enough isolation, he told the justices, to have caused him mental agony.