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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A plea for help after a quarter-century in a ‘penal tomb’

The Allan B. Polunsky Unit, a maximum-security prison, in Livingston, Texas, Aug. 25, 2021. Dennis Hope, who has been held in solitary confinement in a Texas prison for more than half his life, asked the Supreme Court to set limits on prolonged isolation.

By Adam Liptak

Dennis Hope has spent 27 years in solitary confinement in a Texas prison, in a cell that is 9 feet long and 6 feet wide — smaller than a compact parking space.

“It’s three steps to the door and then turn around and three steps back,” Hope, 53, wrote in a recent letter to his lawyers.

His only human contact is with the guards who strip-search and handcuff him before taking him to another enclosure to exercise, alone. He has had one personal phone call since 1994, when his mother died in 2013. He suffers from depression and paranoia and fears he is going insane.

Last month, Hope asked the Supreme Court to consider whether such prolonged isolation can violate the Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishments.

Prison officials in Texas do not seem concerned about Hope’s lawsuit. Last week, they told the Supreme Court that they waived their right to respond to his petition seeking review in his case, Hope v. Harris, No. 21-1065.

In their appeals court brief, the officials wrote that “Hope has no plausible Eighth Amendment claim.”

“While the conditions of Hope’s confinement may be unpleasant and possibly harsh,” the brief said, “he failed to show the conditions are objectively so serious as to deprive him of the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities.”

Texas is a leader in the use of prolonged solitary confinement. More than 500 prisoners there have served more than 10 years in almost total isolation, and 138 have served more than 20.

Across the nation, according to a 2020 study from the Correctional Leaders Association and the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School, about 7,000 prisoners have spent at least a year in solitary confinement and about 1,500 have been isolated for more than six years.

But it is quite rare for prisoners to spend decades in isolation.

“We’ve only identified 12 prisoners outside of Texas who have spent more than 20 years in solitary confinement and who aren’t on death row,” said Easha Anand, one of the lawyers from the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center representing Hope. She acknowledged, however, that complete data are hard to come by.

Hope was sentenced to 80 years in 1990 for a series of armed robberies and landed in solitary after he escaped from prison in 1994. He eluded capture for about two months, during which he stole a car at knife point from an 83-year-old man and robbed four grocery stores.

In 2005, after 11 years in solitary confinement, a committee of prison security personnel concluded that Hope was no longer an “escape risk,” according to court papers. But prison authorities have kept him isolated.

Hope sued, losing in the lower courts. A divided three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in New Orleans, ruled that “the sheer length of his confinement” does not, by itself, violate the Eighth Amendment.

In dissent, Judge Catharina Haynes wrote that she would have allowed his challenge to move forward given “the extreme length of Hope’s solitary confinement” and evidence that he had experienced “anxiety, depression, visual and auditory hallucinations,” and had “thoughts of suicide.”

Some members of the Supreme Court have been fiercely critical of solitary confinement.

“It drives men mad,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said in 2015 at Harvard Law School.

He elaborated in a 2015 concurring opinion. “Years on end of near total isolation exact a terrible price,” he wrote, noting that “common side effects of solitary confinement include anxiety, panic, withdrawal, hallucinations, self-mutilation, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.”

That same year, Justice Stephen Breyer noted in a dissent that “the United Nations special rapporteur on torture has called for a global ban on solitary confinement longer than 15 days.”

But Kennedy retired in 2018, and Breyer announced his own plan to step down last month.

By the summer, then, there will be only one member of the court who has noted qualms about prolonged solitary confinement. Justice Sonia Sotomayor has said it “comes perilously close to a penal tomb.”

As the court has grown more conservative, the arguments against prolonged solitary confinement have shifted. Hope’s lawyers at the MacArthur Justice Center told the justices in his petition seeking review that the practice was inconsistent with the original understanding of the Eighth Amendment.

Solitary confinement was, they wrote, “unheard-of at the founding, attempted and quickly aborted in the following centuries, and resurrected only with Mr. Hope’s generation of prisoners.”

The petition drew on the work of John F. Stinneford, a law professor at the University of Florida whose work on the original meaning of the Eighth Amendment has been cited with approval by the court’s conservative majority in cases on methods of execution.

For his part, Hope said his lawsuit has given his life some meaning, even as his eyesight dims, his vocal cords weaken and his vocabulary shrinks from lack of use.

“Challenging the use of solitary confinement,” Hope wrote to his lawyers, “has given me a purpose and goal and helped me maintain a degree of my sanity in an otherwise insane environment.”

“Having sat back here and watched men commit suicide, mutilate themselves, try to overdose on pills and slowly lose their minds,” he wrote, “I said to myself that I was going to try to make a positive change in the way we are housed and treated if it was the last thing I did.”

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