Judge rules ex-death row inmate's incarceration is cruel and unusual punishment
A federal judge has condemned high security prison conditions in Connecticut, ruling that a convicted cop killer has been subjected to “cruel and unusual” punishment
By Edmund H. Mahony
The Hartford Courant
HARTFORD, Conn. — A federal judge has condemned high security prison conditions in Connecticut, ruling that a convicted cop killer who was confined for years on the state’s death row has been subjected to “cruel and unusual” punishment.
Ruling in one of at least a half dozen federal civil rights suits by former death row inmate Richard Reynolds, U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill ordered the state to immediately relax the conditions under which he is confined and said he will consider imposing some sort of “damages” on the correction officers Reynolds names in his suit as defendants.
Underhill concludes in a set of decisions released Wednesday, one of them 57 pages long, that the conditions of confinement imposed by the state on former death row inmates — in particular the periods of time during which they are locked alone in their cells — amounts to a Constitutional violation.
“Reynolds committed a heinous crime ? he murdered a law enforcement officer,” Underhill wrote. “Reynolds was sentenced to death and awaited execution for twenty-one years. When the death penalty was abolished retroactively in Connecticut, Reynolds was resentenced to life without the possibility of release. The fact that people commit inhumane crimes does not give the state the right to treat them inhumanely. Solitary confinement is an extreme form of punishment with a long history in American penal systems.”
In a related ruling, Underhill gave the Department of Correction a list of instructions that would relax Reynolds’ confinement and he ordered the state to provide him with a progress report in 30 days. Among other things, Underhill said Reynolds should be allowed to socialize with inmates who have a lower security classification and be allowed “contact” with visitors.
Underhill also said that a “hearing in damages will follow to determine the scope and amount of liability of” the 10 or so correction officers Reynolds named in his suit.
The implications and breadth of Underhill’s rulings were not immediately clear Wednesday. Reynolds’ lawyers on the suit on which Underhill ruled, a legal clinic associated with Columbia University, were not immediately available. The office of State Attorney General William Tong is defending the 10 corrections department employees being sued individually and in their official capacities. Tong’s office is also defending the half dozen other suits Reynolds has filed or is pressing in federal court, the latest of which claims he was injured while being driven to a court appearance because a prison guard drove at speeds Reynolds claims reached 95 mph. Tong’s office declined to discuss Underhill’s ruling.
“We are reviewing the decision and weighing options for next steps,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Benton said.
Reynolds was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1995 for killing Waterbury police officer Walter Williams three years earlier. In 2017, he was resentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release after the state Supreme Court ruled the death penalty was unconstitutional. Reynolds has been confined for 23 years at the Northern Correctional Institution in Somers, the state’s most secure maximum security prison. He is classified for security purposes as a “special circumstances inmate” — the highest classification — and lives alone in a 12 foot by 7 foot cell.
At the center of Underhill’s ruling is the assertion that a variety of conditions imposed in prison on former death row inmates — extended periods locked alone in their cells, prohibition against mingling with lower security inmates and their inability to touch visitors amounts in Reynolds’ case to psychological torture and it could be damaging his mental health.
Underhill wrote that Reynolds is allowed out of his cell for two 15-minute periods to eat lunch and dinner. He is allowed to take one 15-minute shower each day, two hours of recreation each day for six days a week and two hours of weekly indoor gym recreation. Reynolds may, upon request, receive visits from clergy, attorneys, or prison medical staff.
“Other than those periods, Reynolds remains isolated with no contact with anyone but the six other inmates on special circumstances status,” Underhill wrote. “Although he is allowed social visits with family members, no physical contact is permitted during those visits, which occur through Plexiglass.”
Arguing on behalf of the state prison system, the Attorney General’s office conceded that Reynolds is denied access to the general inmate population because "Death row inmates are a special class of prisoners. ... They have nothing to lose in committing assaults or attempting to escape. It is eminently rational to conclude that death row inmates constitute the biggest escape risk should they be housed in general population.”
The state disputed many of Reynolds’ allegations and responded that he is relatively comfortable in a modern well-furnished cell with TV, radio, video games, heating, cooling, lighting and hot and cold water.
In his suit, Reynolds relies on — and Underhill adopts — the beliefs of former Harvard University psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Grassian, who argues that special circumstance inmates are confined in conditions that are “psychologically toxic, cruel, ineffective and counterproductive.” In Reynolds’ case, Grassian said the confinement could lead to self-harm or suicidal tendencies.
Grassian made similar arguments when trying, unsuccessfully, to block the execution of convicted Connecticut killer Michael Ross, the last inmate executed in the state.
Underhill points out that Reynolds also complains that the physical conditions of his imprisonment are denying him “his basic need for adequate shelter.”
Among other things, Reynolds complained in court that "plumbing problems are endemic at Northern; wastewater and fecal matter regularly back up into adjacent cells, causing the entire unit to smell strongly of feces. ... On multiple occasions, (his) genitals were submerged in his neighbor’s wastewater and fecal matter because another inmate had flushed the adjacent cell’s toilet while (he) was using the toilet in his cell.”
©2019 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)
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