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Federal Judge Rules Death Row Unconstitutional

May 25, 1985 GMT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ Tennessee’s death row is a ″prison within a prison″ and treatment of inmates there amounts to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge John T. Nixon said Friday in a long-awaited opinion that he would appoint a special master to work with the state on improvements at Unit VI of the Tennessee State Prison.

″The principal concern of the court is that the inmates remain idle and confined in their small cells for so much time,″ said the judge, who made made a surprise inspection on April 19 of the unit where 44 death row inmates and other maximum-security prisoners live.

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″The cells are entirely too small to confine individuals for more than 22 hours a day, day after day. The temperatures in the cells vary excessively. Lighting in the cells is inadequate, many toilets are outmoded and many cells are infested with insects.″

He ordered the state to submit a comprehensive ″good faith plan,″ within 90 days of the appointment of the special master, on how the problems will be corrected.

Nixon called the unit ″a prison within a prison″ under Warden Michael Dutton, with no consideration of the ″unique emotional and psychological″ needs of inmates condemned to die.

The court will retain jurisdiction pending ″complete implementation of an adequate remedy,″ the judge said in the 40-page opinion, which includes a seven-page history of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

″I can’t say that I’m surprised,″ said Richard McGee, the Nashville lawyer for the death-row inmate whose case triggered the challenge of unit conditions. ″I felt the evidence was pretty overhwhelming.″

Death row is held together with ″a lot of prayers and a lot of paint,″ said McGee, who represents murderer Ronald Harries.

Attorney General Mike Cody said through spokeswoman Gina Barham, ″We are in the process of reviewing the decision and until we have had an opportunity to do so we do not believe it would be appropriate to comment.″

Among other problems cited by Nixon included lack of work and educational programs, little opportunity to exercise, no group religious services, inadequate counseling services, no psychological or aptitude testing to address individual needs of inmates and little room for them to move around in their cells.

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The conditions cited by Nixon were identical to those pointed out by witnesses during four days of testimony in January and in line with arguments presented in court by Nashville lawyer Larry Woods, who mounted a successful third-party effort to halt Harries’ electrocution only hours before his execution date June 13.

Woods said the ruling would ″become the keystone and the precedent″ for pending lawsuits nationwide involving condemned prisoners.

″It was great. It’s the first litigated decision in a death-row conditions case in the country,″ said Woods, contacted by telephone at a state park where he was spending the holiday weekend.