Arguments Made In Suit Over Pa. Death Row Conditions

Posted: November 08, 1986

Confining Pennsylvania death row inmates to their cells for 22 hours a day and limiting their access to legal resources, worship services and visitors is ''harsh," is without "penological justification" and ought to be stopped, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer told a federal judge yesterday.

But a lawyer for the state argued that the restrictions were necessary to maintain prison security and that any emotional problems among death row inmates resulted from their sentence, not the conditions of their confinement.

Both lawyers made their final arguments to U.S. District Judge Joseph L. McGlynn Jr., who is presiding at the trial of a class-action lawsuit filed by death row inmates. He gave no indication of when he might rule.

Testimony, part of which took place at Graterford state prison, was completed in August. The arguments were made yesterday after the two sides resolved a dispute over the admission of certain prison records as evidence.

"Long hours of cell confinement without anything to do" have resulted in psychological damage to death row inmates, said the ACLU legal director, Stefan Presser. Some have been diagnosed as suffering from chronic depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, he noted.

"I'm not saying to you that these men are not anxious and under stress," said Maria Parisi Vickers, Pennsylvania's senior deputy attorney general. ''They are. They should be. They are under the sentence of death and they are not living in a very nice environment."

But she argued that the conditions did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. In a brief submitted to the judge in connection with the arguments, she said: "Do these conditions violate the prevailing standard of decency in our society - the same society that finds it desirable to impose the death penalty? Defendants urge this court to hold that they do not."

The suit by death row inmates was filed in 1983, shortly after the Corrections Department moved all inmates sentenced to death into restricted housing units at the state's three maximum-security prisons. Before November 1982, death-sentenced inmates lived among, and enjoyed the same privileges as, other prisoners.

There are 75 inmates on death row in Pennsylvania. Although there has not been an execution in Pennsylvania since 1962, Gov. Thornburgh has signed four death warrants. Three have been stayed pending appeals. The latest is for Leslie Beasley, who is scheduled to be executed Dec. 2 in the electric chair at the state prison at Rockview.

In the lawsuit, the death row inmates complain of having to spend 22 hours a day in what they call cramped, dimly lit, poorly ventilated cells. They say that they are not allowed to touch family members during visits, that they have limited access to educational programs and the prison library, and that they may not work in prison jobs. Their outside exercise is in individual, concrete-floored, fully fenced cubicles, they say.

Presser argued yesterday that the restrictions violated the inmates' Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

He said the Corrections Department's policy was unjustified because inmates sentenced to death had caused no more problems than any other prisoners. State prison records, he said, show that nearly 50 percent of death row inmates are free of prison misconduct citations. Some inmates have not been cited since 1979.

Pointing out that other states have loosened their restrictions on death row inmates, Presser said: "There are clearly ways that my clients' rights can be accomodated without jeopardizing the security of the institution."

Vickers disagreed, noting that prison officials had testified that inmates sentenced to death were dangerous and unpredictable and required tight security. She urged the judge to give prison officials "the leeway to exercise their informed judgment."

She said the death row inmates - now being housed at Graterford and Huntingdon state prisons - had a "myriad" of contacts available, including doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors. She said that while they could not worship in groups, they were visited by ministers; and though they could not visit the prison library, they could request that legal references be sent to their cells.

Vickers said the state planned to build new restricted housing units at Graterford and Pittsburgh that would resolve complaints from death row inmates of inadequate ventilation and peeling paint in their cells.

"I don't think prison, especially death row, is supposed to be comfortable," she said. "But they are provided the necessary elements to sustain life in a decent fashion."

McGlynn is hearing the case without a jury.

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