This case in the Federal District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, challenged 33 years of solitary confinement on death row as violating the 8th and 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. At the time the case was heard in 2019, Ernest Porter had been held in solitary confinement for 32 years, despite having a perfect disciplinary record in DOC custody. His death sentence was overturned in 2003, but he had yet to be resentenced due to ongoing appeals. The PA DOC contended that those appeals required Porter to remain being buried in conditions that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor referred to as a “penal tomb.”
In 2017, the Third Circuit held in Williams v. Secretary, that incarcerated people whose death sentences had been vacated had a liberty interest in removal from solitary confinement that entitled them to due process rights to challenge their isolation and be released to the general population of the prison. Despite that ruling, Porter remained in solitary in the capital case unit.
Porter filed suit in 2017 arguing that his indefinite solitary confinement which began in 1986 constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment, and that the Third Circuit’s 2017 ruling entitled him to due process protections under the 14th Amendment. The Federal District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania granted defendants summary judgment, throwing out Porter’s suit and leading to his appeal to the Third Circuit.
The court granted Porter’s appeal, making This litigation, co-counseled by Daniel Greenfield of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern School of Law, was the first circuit court case to recognize that plaintiff’s declaration about the harms of prolonged solitary confinement (of 32 years) are sufficient for a jury to find an 8th Amendment violation, reversing summary judgment and remanding for trial. This case ultimately resulted in Porter being removed from solitary confinement.