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Court: State can’t revert to old death row conditions

(AP) A federal appeals court has ruled that Virginia cannot go back to isolating death row inmates and denying them access to recreational facilities.

On May 3, a divided three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling prohibiting the state from reverting to old conditions that were found to be unconstitutional. Those conditions included holding inmates in 71-square-foot cells for 23 hours a day.

The state improved its treatment of death row inmates in 2015 but did not commit to making those changes permanent.

In 2018, a federal judge barred the state from returning to the old conditions, finding that the isolation forced on the inmates created “a significant risk of substantial psychological and emotional harm.” The 4th Circuit panel agreed with that finding.

“The challenged conditions on Virginia’s death row deprived inmates of the basic human need for ‘meaningful social interaction and positive environmental stimulation,'” wrote Judge James A. Wynn Jr. for the panel majority. “The undisputed evidence established that that deprivation posed a substantial risk of serious psychological and emotional harm and that State Defendants were deliberately indifferent to that risk,” the panel majority said.

Writing in dissent, Judge Paul V. Niemeyer said that, because the harsh conditions have already been ameliorated, the trial court’s ruling was “reaching into the realm of advisory opinions.”

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