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Prieto v. Clarke (U.S. Sup. Ct.)

Alfredo Prieto, the petitioner in Prieto v. Clarke, asked the Supreme Court to review his case and hold that he was entitled to due process before being placed in long-term solitary confinement. 

Prieto was one of just eight inmates out of the 39,000 in the custody of the Virginia Department of Corrections who had been permanently assigned to solitary confinement.  As a result of that assignment, Prieto and the other inmates in his situation (i.e., those on death row) spent 23 hours or more a day alone in a 71-square foot cell for the past seven years, deprived of almost all human contact.  Despite describing Prieto’s conditions as “undeniably severe,” the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in a divided decision, ruled that Prieto had no right to review his automatic assignment to solitary confinement, as he could not establish a protected liberty interest within any state statute, regulation, or policy.  As Judge Wynn’s dissent recognized, this ruling required Prieto—and other inmates like him—to remain in the severe and harsh conditions of solitary confinement without even the “minimalist [of] procedural safeguards.”

On August 7, 2015, CAC filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Prieto, arguing that states must afford due process before assigning inmates to atypical and severe conditions of confinement, such as long-term solitary confinement.  When the Reconstruction Framers drafted the Fourteenth Amendment, they were embracing an enduring American constitutional tradition that all persons, including those who are incarcerated, are entitled to “due process of law” before they are deprived of “life, liberty, or property.”  As the Supreme Court explained in Sandin v. Connor, state-created liberty interests protected by the Due Process Clause include an inmate’s interest in avoiding “atypical and significant hardship. . . in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life.” 

Though Prieto’s restrictive conditions clearly qualified as such a hardship, the Fourth Circuit concluded that Prieto was entitled to no protection under the Due Process Clause, thereby allowing him to be placed and kept in solitary confinement on a permanent basis without any showing by the State that such restrictive conditions of confinement are justified by either his offense or the Department of Corrections’ institutional needs.  Such long-term placement in solitary confinement raises serious Eighth Amendment concerns because, as numerous studies have shown, the psychological damage caused by long-term solitary confinement is incredibly severe—so severe as to be excessive with respect to virtually all prisoners.  These serious Eighth Amendment concerns underscore the importance of providing Prieto and others in his situation at least some due process protections before they are consigned to live in such “harsh[]” and “undeniably severe” conditions.

Unfortunately, Virginia executed Prieto before the Court could consider his petition, and the Court dismissed his petition for a writ of certiorari as moot on October 13, 2015.