Judge Leonie Brinkema and the overwhelming fact of isolation


On Friday, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema confirmed a decision she had made last November. In Prieto v Clarke, Judge Brinkema ruled that, despite the horrific nature of Alfredo Prieto’s crimes, which had landed him on Virginia’s death row, he still had rights, including his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. At issue was Virginia’s practice of automatically and permanently putting all death row prisoners into 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement.

In her November ruling, Judge Brinkema wrote, “Plaintiff’s conditions of confinement on death row are undeniably extreme, He must remain alone in his cell for nearly 23 hours per day. The lights never go out in his cell, although they are scaled back during the overnight hours. Plaintiff is allowed just five hours of outdoor recreation per week, and that time is spent in another cell at best slightly larger than his living quarters. He otherwise has no ability to catch a glimpse of the sky because the window in his cell is a window in name only. Nor can he pass the time in the company of other inmates; plaintiff is deprived of most forms of human contact. His only real break from the monotony owes to a television and compact disc player in his cell and limited interactions with prison officials. Such dehumanizing conditions are eerily reminiscent of those at the maximum-security prison in Wilkinson. … The Court likewise finds it significant that plaintiff has already spent five years in this placement, and there is no end in sight. Plaintiff has not even begun federal post-conviction proceedings, which are likely to play out over the course of several years and further delay the carrying out of his sentence. For all practical purposes, his placement `is for an indefinite period of time’.”

Wilkinson was a 2005 Supreme Court case in which the Court decided, among other issues, that being sent to supermax had to be based on certain considerations. As Judge Brinkema put it in November, “Courts have considered whether the conditions in question are particularly extreme or restrictive, whether the duration of confinement is excessive or indefinite, whether an inmate’s parole status is negatively affected, and whether an inmate’s confinement in such conditions bears a rational relationship to legitimate penological interests.” According to Judge Brinkema, Virginia had failed on all three counts: particular extremity and restrictiveness of conditions; indefinite duration of confinement; lack of legitimate penological interests.

To no one’s surprise the Commonwealth of Virginia objected, and this Friday, Judge Brinkema responded. She rejected Virginia’s request that her decision be delayed. Judge Brinkema reiterated her view of what counts here: “the overwhelming fact of isolation — plaintiff is left alone in a small cell for nearly every hour of every day.”

The overwhelming fact of isolation is an injustice. Indefinite and prolonged isolation is an injustice. Justice, as part of being human, matters. That’s what U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema confirmed on Friday, and therein some hope lies.


(Image Credit: ACLU)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.