- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2022

More than three dozen law enforcement officials asked the Supreme Court this week to hear a case concerning an inmate who has been kept in solitary confinement for decades. They are arguing against the use of solitary confinement and warning that it harms the justice system. 

The current and former prosecutors and Justice Department lawyers filed a brief with the high court on Tuesday, asking the justices to hear the legal battle, Hope v. Harris, concerning the imprisonment of a Texas inmate who has been held alone in a cell for roughly 27 years. 

They want the high court to set a constitutional limit on solitary confinement.

The lawyers say the use of solitary confinement for long periods of time increases mental health problems, is inhumane and does not help law enforcement’s goals or its reputation.

“Prolonged solitary confinement is not only horribly inhumane, it is also counterproductive to the goal of protecting public safety,” said Mary McCord, executive director of Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.

“The impact on the mental health of those subjected to lengthy isolation is well documented, often leaving them broken and unprepared to reenter society, leading to increased recidivism upon release. The signers of this brief join the growing international consensus against the practice,” she said.

The 21-page brief argues that keeping an inmate locked up in solitary confinement deters the goal of rehabilitation because the inmate is:

• Kept from educational and vocational opportunities.

• Prevented from building and maintaining supportive relationships.

• Prevented from being properly prepared for life outside of prison.

The law enforcement officials say many inmates who are kept in solitary confinement and are released directly into the community end up reoffending.

“A practice that contributes to increased recidivism is inconsistent with [law enforcement’s] mission to protect the public,” the brief states.

The brief also notes that 500 Texas inmates have been in solitary confinement for more than a decade, while 138 have been isolated for more than 20 years.

The legal battle concerns Texas prisoner Dennis Wayne Hope. He’s been in solitary confinement for 27 years, according to court papers, spending almost every minute alone in a cell the size of a parking space.

As a result, he suffers from pain, thoughts of suicide and hallucinations. He was allowed one personal phone call since being locked up, his attorneys say.

Hope, who has been incarcerated since 1994 after a series of armed robberies, took his case to court, arguing solitary confinement for long periods of time runs afoul of the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

He was placed in solitary confinement after attempting to escape. In 2005, though, prison officials determined he was no longer an escape risk. Nevertheless, he has been kept isolated. 

Hope is being held in the Polunsky Unit within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, according to court records.

Circuit courts have issued conflicting opinions on whether prolonged solitary confinement runs afoul of constitutional rights, so Hope’s attorneys are asking the justices to settle the debate.

“Near-total isolation for any length of time, let alone for decades, has always been understood to be ‘cruel’ beyond measure,” Hope’s attorneys write in their brief.

Neither a spokesperson from the Texas attorney general’s office nor a spokesperson from the Texas Department of Corrections responded to a request for comment.

In a lower court filing, Texas officials said Hope’s constitutional rights were not violated.

“While the conditions of Hope’s confinement may be unpleasant and possibly harsh, he failed to show the conditions are objectively so serious as to deprive him of the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities,” their brief filed at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said.

The Fifth Circuit rejected Hope’s claims last year, prompting him to appeal to the high court.

The justices will meet privately in March to decide whether to hear the case.

It would take at least four of the justices to vote in favor of reviewing the legal battle for oral arguments to be scheduled. 

• Alex Swoyer can be reached at aswoyer@washingtontimes.com.

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