The ACLU of Rhode Island today filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of a 110-year-old statute that declares inmates serving life sentences at the ACI to be “dead in all respects” with respect to “all civil rights.” The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court by ACLU cooperating attorneys Sonja Deyoe and Lynette Labinger, is on behalf of two ACI inmates who are barred from pursuing legal actions against the Department of Corrections in court because of the “civil death” law. According to the lawsuit, Rhode Island may be the only state in the country still enforcing a law like this, whose origins date back to ancient English common law.
As far back as 1976, a court struck down Missouri’s civil death statute, noting that “the concept of civil death has been condemned by virtually every court and commentator to study it over the last thirty years.” The court observed that such laws had been characterized even before then as “archaic,” “outmoded,” “an outdated and inscrutable common law precept,” and “a medieval fiction in a modern world.” In 1937, when 18 states still had civil death laws, a law review article called the concept “outworn.”
The lawsuit seeks a court order declaring the civil death law unconstitutional on a number of grounds, including as a violation of inmates’ First Amendment right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
One of the plaintiffs, James Lombardi, is barred by the statute from suing the DOC after he cut himself in his cell on a footlocker that he claims the Department knew was hazardous. The other plaintiff, Joshua Davis, claims that a DOC nurse recklessly exposed him to blood-borne pathogens by administering insulin from a contaminated vial of medication, but the civil death statute bars him from bringing claims alleging medical negligence or other violations of his rights.
In 2015, the ACLU challenged the statute as it applied to bar inmates serving life sentences from marrying, but the court in that case said that a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court summary affirmance, without a written opinion, of a federal court decision upholding a New York statute that barred inmates sentenced to life imprisonment from marrying applied.
The key portion of the state law being challenged reads: “Every person imprisoned in the adult correctional institutions for life shall, with respect to all rights of property, to the bond of matrimony and to all civil rights and relations of any nature whatsoever, be deemed to be dead in all respects, as if his or her natural death had taken place at the time of conviction.”
ACLU attorney Deyoe said today: “Most of the individuals affected by this act receive life sentences with the possibility of parole and will subsequently be released back into society. This law is a remnant of a byzantine era and works directly against any type of rehabilitation these offenders could receive which would better equip them when they eventually reenter society. It removes from them all of their civil rights and constitutes a punishment in some respects far greater than is fathomable in an orderly society such as ours. Under the Civil Death Act, those affected cannot file suit in state court for even the most grievous of crimes that are committed against them while in prison. This would include crimes such as torture, rape, criminal neglect and denial of the most basic things such as food and water.”
ACLU of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown added: “Interpreted literally, the statute would allow prison officials to waterboard an inmate serving a life sentence, and leave the inmate with no legal recourse. The irony of the statute is that a person who is sentenced to life imprisonment – and thus legally dead – may be eligible for parole after 20 or 25 years, while a person who is instead sentenced to confinement for 99 years, and not eligible for parole for a longer period of time, retains their civil rights under the law. The statute is archaic, irrational and unjustifable.”