PHOENIX — For the first time in 20 years, dozens of prisoners on Arizona’s death row are not spending their days in solitary confinement with prison guards as their only human contact.

The state Department of Corrections earlier this year moved all but 27 of 120 death-row inmates to a Florence prison where they can walk outside and eat meals with others in the common area instead of in their tiny cells. Here, their cells open and are not sealed by a steel door. They can also play basketball and volleyball or go on the prison recreational fields for several hours each day.

What spurred the change is up for debate.

Attorneys with the Arizona Capital Representation Project sued the state agency in 2015 on behalf of inmate Scott Nordstrom, who is on death row for six murders committed during two Tucson robberies in 1996. The lawsuit alleged the corrections department’s treatment of inmates was unconstitutional. It violated inmates’ right to due process and an amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment, the attorneys said.

Corrections officials countered that they were already working to change the system when the lawsuit was filed.

Carson McWilliams, the division director for the Corrections Department, said in court documents that Arizona was already experimenting with allowing more socializing for death-row inmates after seeing positive results in other state prison systems. State officials also disputed the application of the term “solitary confinement.” However, the United Nations passed guidelines in 2015 defining imprisonment and solitary confinement, saying solitary is “confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact.”

The lawsuit was settled in March, the Arizona Republic reported.

Attorneys for Nordstrom declined to comment, saying they are still suing for nearly $150,000 in legal fees.

Arizona death-row prisoners were moved into maximum security after the wife of one tried to orchestrate a prison break in 1997 while he was working on a chain gang at the Florence prison. The incident resulted in both the prisoner and his wife being killed by return gunfire.

Death-row prisoners were permitted two hours of exercise in a confined area three times a week and three showers a week. Their meals were delivered through a slot in a corrugated steel door and the lights were left on 24-7. Prisoners’ only physical contact was with guards and they were known to sometimes talk with other inmates by tapping on the wall in code.

Now, prisoners like Richard Greenway are no longer relegated to a 9 ½ -by-10-foot concrete cell for 23 hours a day. Greenway, 49, has been in prison since 1989 for the 1988 murders of a woman and her daughter during a burglary in Tucson.

Greenway can now have face-to-face visits with attorneys or family members. He is allowed to walk unshackled to a mess hall instead of waiting for food to be thrust at him through the door and said after two decades he finds the little bit of freedom surreal.

“It’s hard to explain the deprivation,” Greenway said. “It weighs on your mind.”

Prisoners aren’t the only ones happy with the new course of action. Wardens and defense attorneys also approve.

“They’re all a lot happier,” Assistant Arizona Attorney General Michael Gottfried said at a recent meeting of the Capital Case Oversight Committee, an advisory panel to the Arizona Supreme Court.

The inmates should benefit psychologically from being able to socialize more. According to McWilliams, they have “some way to express themselves rather than being in a cell and angry all the time.”


Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com