Why Virginia's death row inmates have more privileges than ever before

At a time when the role of the death penalty and treatment of prisoners in American justice is facing heightened scrutiny, one state has taken steps to make time spent on death row a little bit easier.

Steve Helber/AP/File
Prison guards stand outside the entrance to the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Va., Sept. 23, 2010. Virginia officials have quietly granted the state’s death row inmates new privileges amid legal challenges from the men awaiting execution.

Death row inmates in Virginia are used to hard living. They are given three showers a week, recreation time is held in an outdoor cell for five hours a week, and glass separates the inmate from family visitors.  That is, until recently.

Virginia has recently extended the privileges granted to death row inmates. A new courtyard is being built for recreation time – equipped with basketball court and exercise equipment, a room for phone calls and television, and the ability to touch and hold family during visits.

"Those kinds of things are meaningful when so very little is granted to the inmates," Victor Glasberg, an attorney who represented several inmates challenging Virginia’s strict protocols for death row inmates, told The Associated Press.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring praised the extended privileges, saying the conditions on death row are “significantly more progressive.” However, Mr. Glasberg believes more can be done.

"When your comparators are horrible, it goes just so far to say that you're at the top of the heap," Glasberg said. 

Glasberg is continuing to meet with officials to seek further changes.

Many improvements for death row inmates have been prompted by the case of Alfredo Prieto, a death row inmate convicted of three murders. He was executed on Oct. 1.

Virginia’s restrictions held many death row inmates in effective solitary confinement. Mr. Prieto filed a lawsuit claiming that the isolation was cruel and unusual punishment. A federal judge agreed with Prieto and claimed Virginia cannot automatically isolate death row inmates. The ruling was later overturned in an appeals court.

Prieto lost an appeal in the US Supreme Court and was executed. Other death row inmates, however, are continuing to fight for further privileges. Another lawsuit filed by death row inmates argues a similar case to Mr. Prieto’s: indefinite isolation is a cruel and unusual punishment. It is still moving through the courts.

Most opinions on extended privileges appear to be positive. Harold McFarland, whose son was killed by death row inmate William Morva, believes Mr. Morva should face the death penalty. He also supports Morva having extended privileges in prison.

“While he’s still on the Earth, he should be treated as a human,” he told the AP.

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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