The Oklahoma Department of Corrections has moved 33 death row inmates into a new unit inside McAlester’s Oklahoma State Penitentiary following discussions with ACLU attorneys this summer.
But the ACLU still believes the inmates’ constitutional rights are being violated, and the inmates are still technically being held in solitary confinement as well as being denied religious services.
Jessica Brown, DOC’s director of communications, told The Frontier in an email that the move of 33 death row inmates from H Unit, where death row inmates have traditionally been housed, to A Unit was completed last month. Ten inmates remain housed in H Unit, she said, “for their safety or the safety of others.”
One inmate is currently housed in a single cell inside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary’s infirmary, she said. Brown said DOC is preparing for the move of Brenda Andrews, 55, the lone female on Oklahoma’s death row, who is housed at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud.
This summer, ACLU attorney Megan Lambert sent DOC director Scott Crow a lengthy letter detailing what the ACLU felt were constitutional violations of inmates on death row, such as solitary confinement, a decade-long lack of religious services and the fact that anyone sentenced to death was automatically considered a maximum security inmate regardless of their intake assessment.
In late September, Crow notified the ACLU that “the subject” of Lambert’s previous letter had been “the topic of informal discussions” within DOC and that the agency had decided to relocate “qualifying death row inmates” to a different unit within OSP.
Despite that, Lambert said the ACLU is still “prepared to litigate” if certain conditions aren’t met.
“The first is solitary confinement, and the automatic classification of all inmates with a death sentence to maximum security regardless of their behavior or the security level their assessment shows is most appropriate,” Lambert told The Frontier. “And second is the lack of group religious services.”
Death row inmates had access to group religious services until 2009, Lambert said, when the services unceremoniously went away. A decade later they are still not being conducted.
“It was usually something like six to 10 guys, they’d be handcuffed, but they had enough slack so that they could hold bibles or a prayer book,” she said. “They would pray and sing together, have discussions or lectures, with different groups coming in to hold services.”
Crow, in his September letter, said DOC officials would consider allowing religious services for death row inmates after the inmates were moved as long as they “adjust(ed) well to the A Unit environment.”
“In our view, the deadline for (DOC) to accomplish these goals would have been about 10 years ago,” Lambert told The Frontier.
Brown told The Frontier last week that DOC moved death row prisoners out of a single-cell environment proactively, and that “solitary confinement is a discussion among many in the corrections industry across the nation.”
But some death row inmates in Oklahoma remain held in a single cell, and Lambert said that even the double-celled inmates still meet the technical definition of solitary confinement
“Solitary can still exist if you are in a cell with another inmate,” Lambert said. “Solitary means 22-24 hours in a cell, so that can absolutely include people held in double cells … despite the changes, the fundamental constitutional issues have not changed.”
Earlier this month the ACLU reached a settlement with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, allowing death row prisoners there to be incarcerated in the same way general population inmates are held.
Death row inmates there will receive “at least 42.5 hours out-of-cell activity every week,” as well as group meal time and religious services, amid other changes like counseling and work assignments.
Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, DOC is instituting contact visitation for death row inmates, and those housed in A Unit now are able to go outdoors, with restrictions, for recreation. In H Unit, recreation time meant an hour or so in a cement dome with a hole at the top covered by a metal grate.
But the move to A Unit hasn’t been well-received by all the inmates. Phillip Hancock, who was sentenced to death in 2004, said he remains held in a single cell in A Unit, and complained of a lack of heat, of a brown sludge he said comes from his ceiling, and of recreation time that amounts to “standing for an hour outside in a dog run.”
Hancock, 55, shot and killed Robert L. Jett Jr., 37, and James V. Lynch, 58, both of Oklahoma City on April 27, 2001. He was sentenced to death in 2004 and his death sentence was upheld by an appeals court in 2015.
“It’s much worse in here than in H Unit,” Hancock told The Frontier in a phone call.
Hancock said there are eight cells that hold two death row inmates. The rest remain single-celled, he said.
He said he preferred the old “yard” for recreation time, despite its concrete makeup. Now, he said, yard time consists of standing in a “dehumanizing” cage he estimated is 14-feet-by-9-feet.
He also said that while some inmates may be enticed by the “congregate religious activities” the ACLU is urging DOC to bring back, he thinks most people just attended the services in order to get out of their cells.
“Religious services is not going to make our situation any better by being exposed to these wackadoodles,” he said.
Critics of solitary confinement have argued that it has a drastic effect on inmate mental health, and Hancock said most inmates who have spent much time on death row are “making people worse than when they came into this place.”
In order to leave their cells, death row inmates must stick their arms and legs through “the bean hole” in their cell doors, he said, and allow a guard to shackle them.
“They need to get over being afraid of us,” he said, arguing against current DOC policy of no group activities for death row inmates. “They don’t have to treat us like rabid dogs, like we’re all going to jump out and attack each other.”
The death penalty remains on hold in Oklahoma as the state continues to iron out its death penalty protocol. It has been almost five years since the last execution was carried out here.