March 01, 2014

Latham & Watkins Successfully Challenges Virginia Death Row Prison Conditions

Latham & Watkins secured an important victory for their client, Virginia death row prisoner Alfredo Prieto, when a federal district court ruled on November 12, 2013, that death row conditions in Virginia are unconstitutionally restrictive. In October 2012, Mr. Prieto filed a pro se civil rights lawsuit alleging that the prison conditions violated his rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. A few months later, the Project recruited a team of volunteer attorneys led by Latham & Watkins Associate (and former Project intern) Daniel I. Levy to represent him pro bono. Mr. Prieto and the seven other prisoners on Virginia’s death row currently spend 23 hours per day alone in their cells and are allowed only five hours of recreation time per week, which are spent in a small outdoor prison cell that has a concrete floor and no exercise equipment. They are permitted only non-contact visits from immediate family members on weekends in a room where they are separated by a glass partition.

The firm, with help from local counsel Michele Brace, successfully convinced the court that Mr. Prieto’s conditions of confinement are “undeniably extreme and atypical” of the conditions experienced by prisoners in the general population. The court focused specifically on the amount of social interaction that general population prisoners are allowed, in contrast to the solitary confinement that Mr. Prieto has experienced in his five years on death row. The court also noted that prisoners in the general population may take advantage of group educational and religious programming and are entitled to outdoor recreation in an open prison yard, “in-pod” recreation time when they can socialize, two communal meals per day, and regular contact visits from family and friends.

In addition to finding that the death row conditions are “uniquely severe” and “dehumanizing,” Judge Leonie Brinkema held that Mr. Prieto’s “automatic and permanent placement” in those conditions as a result of his death sentence violates his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. General population prisoners placed in similar conditions receive a status review within 72 hours and are limited to a period of 30 days in segregated housing for each rule violation. Mr. Prieto, however, “has not been granted a single review in five years, nor will he ever get one without a change in policy.” The court noted that Mr. Prieto has been a model prisoner and stated that the “nature of [Mr. Prieto’s] confinement furthers few, if any, legitimate penological goals.” Finding that Virginia “failed to comply with the demands of due process,” the court granted Mr. Prieto’s motion for summary judgment. The court stated that its “limited ruling leaves defendants with multiple options going forward,” including providing Mr. Prieto with an individualized classification determination like that used for the general population or varying the basic conditions on death row.

The use of solitary confinement has recently received increased scrutiny due in part to national campaigns to stop use of the practice. On February 25, 2014, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights held a second hearing on the use of solitary confinement, this time featuring the testimony of death row exoneree Damon Thibodeaux. Mr. Thibodeaux described how he almost gave up his appeals—nearly committing what he called “suicide by state”—after experiencing conditions similar to those in Virginia while on Louisiana’s death row. He described solitary confinement as a “hopeless existence” that kills prisoners “bit by bit and day by day.”

The Project congratulates Latham & Watkins on this significant victory for Mr. Prieto and possibly all other prisoners on Virginia's death row. The Commonwealth has appealed the district court’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.