Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Tuesday wrote of her “deep misgivings” on the practice of solitary confinement in prisons, noting that “a punishment need not leave physical scars to be cruel and unusual.”
Sotomayor wrote a statement concerning a case alleging that the Colorado State Penitentiary violated inmates’ Eighth Amendment rights by keeping them from exercising outside while in solitary confinement. She stated that while she agrees with the denial of a cert petition that would bring the case before the Supreme Court, “what is clear all the same is that to deprive a prisoner of any outdoor exercise for an extended period of time in the absence of an especially strong basis for doing so is deeply troubling — and has been recognized as such for many years.”
The three inmates petitioning the court were incarcerated at a time when the prison only allowed those in solitary confinement one hour of exercise per week, in a 90 square foot room with only a chinup bar. Colorado has since changed its regulations to ensure that inmates are allowed access to at least one hour of outdoor recreation three days a week.
Sotomayor harkened to the work of Charles Dickens, who wrote in “A Tale of Two Cities” that solitary confinement is like being “buried alive.”
“Courts and corrections officials must accordingly remain alert to the clear constitutional problems raised by keeping prisoners” like the petitioners in near-total isolation “in what comes perilously close to a penal tomb,” the justice wrote.
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