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Florida death row inmates promised more humane treatment after lawsuit settlement

Some 300 condemned Florida prisoners live for years in “permanent solitary confinement.” An agreement with prison officials vows more humane conditions.
In this photo from the Florida Department of Corrections, two corrections officers walk past cells on death row at Union Correctional Institution.
In this photo from the Florida Department of Corrections, two corrections officers walk past cells on death row at Union Correctional Institution.
Published May 16|Updated May 16

A recent settlement in a long-running federal lawsuit that challenged the often decadeslong isolation of Florida’s death row prisoners comes with a promise of more humane treatment for the state’s condemned.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard of Jacksonville in late April approved the settlement, in which the Florida Department of Corrections agreed to allow eligible death-sentenced prisoners to spend more time outside their cells, with some able to hold prison jobs within the death row housing unit. The agreement also guarantees access to mental health care, including psychiatric care, among other provisions.

The change represents a significant turn in Florida’s capital punishment history and an improvement to the safety and efficiency of the state’s prison system, say the lawyers who brought the lawsuit.

“It’s been a tenet of our legal system, really since its inception, that no matter what anyone has done or what they’ve been convicted of, they deserve humane, responsible confinement,” said Evan Shea, a lawyer with the Washington, D.C.-based Venable law firm, who was among the team that shepherded the lawsuit. “As we understand more about the effects of isolation on mental health, it’s very clear from the science that prolonged isolation is not a humane, just condition to place someone in.”

Florida Department of Corrections officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

For more than 40 years, people sentenced to death in Florida have ended up in what the lawsuit described as “permanent solitary confinement.” It is a limbo-like state that typically lasts decades and sometimes ends in execution, but often does not.

As the condemned await the outcome of their cases, they spend close to 24 hours a day in small, windowless cells at Union Correctional Institution, near the town of Raiford, between Jacksonville and Gainesville. The cells are equipped with a small TV, a bunk, a combination toilet and sink, a small writing table and little else.

The prisoners eat meals in their cells. They leave only for brief showers and three hours a week of recreation time in an outdoor yard. Interactions with other people are mostly limited to what the prisoners can hear from men in adjacent cells, and the occasional passing of a corrections officer.

The lawsuit, originally filed in 2017, names as plaintiffs eight men who have lived on death row for periods ranging between four and 30 years. The complaint references research that has shown the adverse effects of long-term solitary confinement, which include heightened anxiety and nervousness, rumination, confused thoughts, chronic depression, mood swings, hallucinations, suicidal thoughts, and overall physical and mental deterioration.

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The settlement aims to change things, starting with an agreement that eligible prisoners will be able to spend at least 15 hours, and up to 20 hours a week, in a newly constructed day room at the end of a cell block. There, they can congregate with others, watch TV and access multimedia kiosks. They will also have increased access to telephones to communicate with loved ones, and increased access to showers.

Prison officials also agreed to extend outdoor recreation time to six hours a week. They will also install a sun shade in the recreation area to mitigate the intense Florida heat, the settlement states.

Eligible prisoners can also have institutional jobs. Such jobs may include tasks like cleaning the death row housing area, Shea said.

A prison classification team will determine which prisoners are eligible to partake in the changes, based on administrative rules. Generally, the regulations exclude prisoners who have committed major violations of prison rules, such as assault, murder or an attempted escape, according to the settlement.

The agreement did not achieve everything the lawyers for the condemned had initially sought, most notably the addition of air conditioning. But the lawyers saw the compromise as a victory.

“This is going to lead to a smoother operation of the prison,” Shea said. “It’s not a good way to run a prison to have inmates that are subject to severe psychological strain. That leads to unhappy prisoners, inmates that are not stable and react in ways that place burdens on correctional officers and on the prison administration.”

A little more than 300 prisoners are confined on Florida’s death row. Most have been there longer than a decade. Many have been there multiple decades.

The longest tenure is that of Tommy Zeigler, who has been on death row since 1976 after a jury found him guilty in the murders of four people at his Winter Garden furniture store. Ziegler maintains his innocence and has amassed significant public support as he seeks new DNA testing in his case.

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