Shawn Walker spent 20 years in a windowless cell measuring 7 by 12 feet. He was allowed to leave that cell five times a week to spend two-hour intervals in a restricted area known as the “dog cage.” His first 14 years in solitary were unavoidable: Pennsylvania placed him on death row for committing first-degree murder, and in Pennsylvania, death row is solitary confinement, reports Slate. But after 14 years, his capital sentence was vacated. Walker was no longer awaiting execution—yet the state kept him locked in solitary, without any clear explanation as to why, for six more years. Walker sued, alleging that his six extra years in solitary violated his constitutional rights.
Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit agreed with Walker in a broad ruling that strictly limits the use of solitary in the three states in the circuit: Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey. The decision marks a considerable victory for opponents of solitary who argue that prisons routinely abuse the practice in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The week’s ruling contributes to a growing consensus among federal courts that the judiciary must curb solitary confinement, a consensus likely to be affirmed by the Supreme Court in the near future. The court considered Walker’s suit along with that of Craig Williams, another former death-row inmate who remained in solitary after his capital sentence was vacated. The judges concluded that prison officials had not violated a “clearly established right” by keeping both men in solitary for no clear reason. That means the officials can’t be held liable for damages. What’s most remarkable about the decision, says Slate, is “its deep skepticism about the constitutionality of solitary as it is routinely applied in the United States.”