ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights Argue Prison Rights Case Before U.S. Supreme Court

Affiliate: ACLU of Ohio
March 30, 2005 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Center for Constitutional Rights today presented oral arguments before the Supreme Court in Wilkinson v. Austin, a case that will determine the due process rights of prisoners at Ohio’s notorious “Supermax” prison.

“This case presents the same issue as the Guantanamo cases decided last spring,” said Staughton Lynd, an ACLU of Ohio volunteer attorney and trial counsel in Austin. “What due process is required before indefinite solitary confinement can be imposed on any human being?”

In 2002, a federal district judge held that confinement at the Ohio State Penitentiary creates an “atypical and significant hardship.” Prisoners housed in the high maximum-security unit are subject to extreme isolation in tiny cells that fail to meet national standards established by the American Correctional Association.

When it was first built, officials sent 100 prisoners to the Penitentiary without notice or hearing, and before the state had written guidelines for the classification of high maximum-security prisoners. Thereafter, the vague guidelines adopted in August 1998 did little to prevent continued arbitrary and haphazard placement. The Supreme Court agreed to hear Austin on the question of whether this lack of procedure amounts to a violation of prisoners’ right to due process.

“The question is whether prison officials can continue to arbitrarily assign prisoners to long-term solitary confinement without basic due process protections such as notice of the charges against them and a decision explaining the reasons for such placement,” said Jules Lobel, a Professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and counsel for the Center for Constitutional Rights. Lobel delivered oral arguments today before the Court.

The ACLU has successfully challenged “Supermax” confinement in several states including Connecticut, Virginia, Wisconsin, New Mexico and Ohio since 2001. These institutions commonly require 23-hour solitary confinement in cells with limited access to rehabilitative programs. The stark living conditions have led to mental deterioration in some prisoners and have proven dangerous to prisoners with preexisting mental illness. In February, the ACLU’s National Prison Project and Indiana affiliate filed a lawsuit regarding Indiana’s Supermax unit because conditions at that facility had spurred four suicides and numerous self-mutilations by mentally ill prisoners.

More information on the Indiana lawsuit is available at: /node/10507.

The ACLU’s brief in today’s case is online at: /node/36302.

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