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Appeals court halts automatic solitary for Pennsylvania inmates no longer facing execution

A federal appeals court on Thursday ordered Pennsylvania prisons to abandon a policy that automatically kept former death-row inmates in solitary confinement, in some cases for years after their capital sentences had been vacated.

Inmates who have won new sentences on appeal have a constitutional right to avoid the detrimental effects of such forced isolation unless prison officials can offer case-by-case justifications for imposing it, the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia ruled.

"Scientific research and evolving jurisprudence has made the harms of solitary confinement clear: Mental well-being and one's sense of self are at risk," Circuit Judge Theodore McKee wrote in an opinion joined by colleagues Julio M. Fuentes and Jane Richards Roth. "We can think of few values more worthy of constitutional protection than these core facets of human dignity."

The ruling joins a growing body of legal decisions that recognize the dehumanizing effects of long-term solitary confinement while also acknowledging its necessity in some cases to ensure the safety of themselves and others.

Studies have repeatedly shown that extended and forced isolation can cause devastating psychological consequences and side effects including anxiety, depression, panic, and suicidal impulses.

It is unclear how many of the state's 173 death-row inmates, all housed in solitary confinement, the Third Circuit ruling may affect. It only applies to those awaiting new sentencings after having their death sentences overturned on appeal.

Under the decision's guidelines, the state prisons must now review whether those inmates can be released safely from solitary as soon as their sentences are overturned and not wait, as had been the policy, until a new punishment is imposed – a process that can take years.

"Such inmates have a right to regular and meaningful review of their continued placement on death row," McKee wrote.

Representatives from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and the Attorney General's Office said they are continuing to review the decision.

James Bilsborrow, lawyer for the death-row inmates at the center of the case, said he hoped the ruling would give prisons pause before imposing indefinite orders of solitary confinement.

"This isn't something we should take lightly," he said. "We need to understand that this can have extremely detrimental impacts on a person's physical and mental health. Before we incarcerate someone in solitary confinement for a period of years, we should at least know that it's justified."

Thursday's decision arose from two lawsuits filed by Philadelphia men sentenced to death after unrelated incidents in which each killed someone while attempting to shoot his ex-girlfriend.

Both men "were confined to their respective cells for 22 to 24 hours a day and ate all meals accompanied only by the emptiness within the walls of their cells," McKee wrote.

Shawn Walker, 46, was convicted in 1993 of fatally shooting a man who tried to prevent him from attacking his ex. Craig Williams, 52, was aiming at his ex-girlfriend when his gunfire accidentally hit and killed a North Philadelphia man in 1987.

Walker spent 12 years on death row before a court granted him a new sentencing hearing in 2004. But it wasn't until eight years later and the conclusion of his remaining appeal efforts that a court imposed his new life sentence.

In between, he continued to be housed alone at Graterford Prison in Montgomery County in a windowless cell no larger than a parking space. He was subjected to invasive strip searches each time he was let out for occasional two-hour periods of exercise.

"To avoid the psychological and physical intrusion of these 'full' body searches," McKee's opinion noted, "Walker did not leave his cell for open air exercise for nearly seven years."

Whenever Williams was allowed to leave his cell at a state prison in Greene County for exercise or limited visits during his 22 years on death row – six of them spent waiting for his new sentence of life in prison – he was placed in a small, locked cage.

Both men had sought damages for the extra years they spent in solitary confinement. But the Third Circuit on Thursday upheld lower court rulings dismissing those claims, saying the prison officials they sued were following Department of Corrections policies at the time.