Many of Arizona’s death-row inmates are no longer spending their days in solitary confinement, reported The Associated Press (AP). The Arizona Department of Corrections moved 93 of its 120 death-row inmates to a Florence, Arizona, prison, where they can be outside and socialize with other death-row inmates in a common area, instead of being isolated in their 9½-by-10-foot cells.
In addition, their cells open and are not sealed by a steel door. They can also shoot hoops, play volleyball, and go on the prison recreational fields for several hours each day.
Experience in other state prison systems has shown that the inmates can benefit psychologically from being able to socialize more. According to Carson McWilliams, the division director for the Arizona Department of Corrections, they have “some way to express themselves rather than being in a cell and angry all the time.”
Death-row inmates can now have face-to-face visits with attorneys or family members. They are also able to walk unshackled to the mess hall instead of waiting for food to be thrust to them through the door. Death-Row inmate Richard Greenway who has been in prison for the murder of a woman and her daughter during a burglary in Tucson, said after two decades he finds the little bit of freedom surreal. “It’s hard to explain the deprivation,” Greenway told the AP. “It weighs on your mind.”
There is debate as to what brought about these new changes. Attorneys with the Arizona Capital Representation Project sued the state agency in 2015, on behalf of inmate Scott Nordstrom, who is on Death-Row for six murders committed during two Tucson robberies in 1996. Their lawsuit alleged the correction department’s treatment of inmates was unconstitutional, violating inmates’ right to due process and an amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment. At that point Death-Row inmates were permitted two hours of exercise three times a week and three showers a week. Physical contact was with guards only and at times they would talk with other inmates by tapping on the wall in code.
Correction officials counter in court documents that Arizona was already experimenting with allowing more socializing for death-row inmates after seeing positive results in other state prison systems. State officials also disputed the application of the term “solitary confinement.”
According to United Nations guidelines passed in 2015, solitary confinement is defined as “the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact.”
The lawsuit was eventually settled in March 2017, according to the AP.