In a brief filed today, the ACLU of Rhode Island has asked the Superior Court to reject a claim made by the R.I. Department of Corrections (DOC) that inmates serving life sentences at the ACI have no legal right to sue for any violation of their civil rights. In a related letter sent today to Governor Gina Raimondo, the ACLU of RI also asked her to intervene and call upon the DOC to refrain from taking this position in future inmate civil rights lawsuits.
The case at issue, filed by Richard Paiva, who is serving a life sentence at the ACI, challenges various issues of his confinement as a violation of his constitutional rights. Without addressing the merits of Paiva’s claims, the DOC has asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, citing the state’s “civil death” statute as barring Paiva from bring a lawsuit against the state in the first place.
The state’s “civil death” law, enacted more than a century ago, declares people sentenced to life in prison to be “dead” for virtually all legal purposes, even though most of them are eligible for parole after 20 years. Rhode Island remains one of only three states with a law like this on the books, despite the fact that as far back as 1976, a federal court noted that these laws had been “condemned by virtually every court and commentator to study” them.
In the letter to Governor Raimondo, the ACLU noted: “Under the DOC’s position, an inmate at the ACI serving a life sentence could be waterboarded, beaten mercilessly by guards, or held in a cell and denied all food and water, but have no access to our state courts to challenge these egregious violations of his constitutional rights. This is a legal argument we might expect to hear from disgraced ex-Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, not from the State of Rhode Island.”
The court brief, filed by ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Sonja Deyoe, argues that the “civil death” law’s ban on Paiva’s access to the court to seek redress for alleged violations of his constitutional rights contravenes his First Amendment and due process rights and the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause.
“Individuals lose many rights when they are convicted and sentenced to life in prison,” said ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown. “But whatever the merits of Paiva’s claims in his lawsuit, he deserves the right to bring his grievances before the courts for review. This a fundamental right that must be respected if we are to call ourselves a just society.”