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Judge approves settlement in lawsuit that challenged the use of solitary confinement on death row

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Men on death row in Louisiana are now able to congregate together regularly for worship, at least one of their daily meals and other recreation.

U.S. District Judge Shelly D. Dick approved a settlement in a class-action lawsuit, filed in March 2017, that challenged automatic solitary confinement for everyone placed on death row.

The settlement agreement requires that the incarcerated people on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola are granted a minimum of four hours out of their cells to congregate with other incarcerated people in their tier each day, at least five hours of communal outdoor recreation each week, the ability to worship together, evening time out of their cells on their tier, at least one meal with other prisoners per day, group classes and contact visitations.

At the time the lawsuit was filed, the roughly 70 men that were on death row spent 23 hours a day alone in their cells that measured 8 by 10 feet, according to the settlement.

They were allowed one hour outside of those cells to use showers or the telephone or to walk down a tiered corridor next to their cells. No two people on death row were allowed out of their cells at the same time. When they were allowed to go outside, three times per week, they were confined to a caged-off outdoor enclosure.

The incarcerated people also were restricted from participating in work programs or classes that were offered to the rest of the prison population, and the only people they came into physical contact with were prison staff.

Changes to the solitary confinement policy began to roll out a few months after the suit was filed. In May 2017, the state’s Department of Public Safety and Corrections began loosening restrictions for people on death row, allowing them four hours a day — two in the morning and two in the afternoon — of congregate time with other men who lived on their tiers, the settlement agreement said. It was the first time in decades that people on death row were able to socialize with each other, according to a report from the Times-Picayune.

DPS&C also began granting the men outdoor time with others on their tier twice a week for two hours at a time. The settlement agreement notes that since the lawsuit was filed, DPS&C has made “several other changes to the conditions of confinement on Death Row.”

The settlement agreement noted that Louisiana State Penitentiary started considering changes to the treatment of its entire incarcerated population beginning in summer 2016, when staff attended the National Institutes of Corrections’ Managing Restrictive Housing Populations training.

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick is the justice, race and equity reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson. She is also an Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations at Type Media Center.

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