Rhode Island Inmates Challenge Law That Declares Them Legally Dead05:47
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Rhode Island is one of the few U.S. states that has a civil death law, which declares inmates serving life in prison legally dead. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Rhode Island is one of the few U.S. states that has a civil death law, which declares inmates serving life in prison legally dead. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

A group of advocates in Rhode Island are suing the state prison over a century-old law that declares inmates serving life sentences legally dead.

Most civil death laws in the U.S. have been struck down, but Rhode Island is one of the few places where people can be punished with civil death. Prisoners serving life without the possibility of parole can lose an assortment of rights like owning property and annulling marriage.

The law’s origin can be traced back to colonial America, when civil death was used to take a person’s rights away while they were awaiting execution for a felony. Civil death laws fell out of favor among states and criminal justice reformers in the 20th century.

Earlier this year, a bill to repeal the Rhode Island statue was introduced in the House Judiciary Committee.

In 2007, former governor of Rhode Island Donald Carcieri vetoed a bill to abolish the law.

“Persons who are sentenced to the remainder of their natural lives in prison are there because they have been found by a jury of their peers to have committed the most serious possible crimes against society, in many cases offenses that have stripped another human being of his or her life,” he said. “The loss of property, and even the right to marry, is not unreasonable.”

But civil death isn’t just about the right to property or marriage.

“We're talking about any rights whatsoever,” says Sonja Deyoe, a private attorney representing four lifers in Rhode Island.

“Inmates who have life sentences can't file litigation. So that essentially means that they have no right to petition the government, to come forward to make a claim,” she says, “to do anything to protect the rights that they have under the Rhode Island Constitution.”

Interview Highlights

On filing a lawsuit on behalf of two inmates

“[One of the] two inmates we filed for in July 1 is Joshua Davis. Joshua Davis is being held in solitary segregation unit over at intake. Intake is where you normally go when you first come in on charges. Joshua Davis is there. And some period of time ago, he received a shot of insulin from one of the nurses at the ACI [adult correctional institute]. And he noticed at the time that the nurse used the same needle to take his blood sugar level as the nurse used to draw the insulin out of the vial. The nurse certainly engaged in the conduct intentionally. And because of how the insulin is given to these various inmates, he knew, reasonably, that it had been given to other inmates before him in the same fashion. So that insulin vial was contaminated. One of the things he might want to do is bring in a medical negligence claim for that.”

On what’s happened with Davis’ case

“Well, nothing. The reason why is because we can't bring a case for him for negligence or for medical negligence because the Rhode Island Supreme Court has held that he can't bring an action. He can't petition the government [because] he has a life sentence.

“He's civilly dead ... meaning, in the eyes of the law, rather, he has given up all of his civil rights, except if he was married at the time he was incarcerated. He can stay married.”

On the history of certain inmates being “civilly dead”

“This comes from Greco Roman time. It went from there to Britain and then obviously came to the United States. But here's the thing: When it came to the United States, it wasn't deemed to be part of our common law. It's something that had to be statutorily enacted by the various states to take effect.”

On how often Rhode Island acts on their civil death laws

“Well, at least twice now. And they're using it to bar prisoners from doing things like making records request under the state Access to Records Act.

“There's another prisoner with a life sentence over in maximum security who has had that happen. So they're using it in every manner possible to prevent inmates with life sentences to move something forward.”

On concerns with the law

“The real concern that we have, that I have, is that under the state constitution, they have no right to exercise First Amendment rights, such as freedom of the press, freedom of speech. All of that is sort of limited when you're in prison anyway. But they give up all of those rights under this statute. They give up their Eighth Amendment rights to avoid cruel and unusual punishment. So that would mean that basically the state can do whatever it wants to do with these particular inmates and they have no avenue for redress. And it's sort of very concerning. They could not get the medical care. They could not feed them.”

On the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s reasoning for affirming the state's civil death statute

“The Civil Death Act was enacted by the legislature and in part because the constitutionality of it wasn't ... challenged at that point — that its obligation as the court was to enforce that act until the legislature acted on it.”

On inmate Cody-Allen Zab’s case, the other Rhode Island inmate Deyoe is representing

“He was charged with arson and murder. … It was a drug deal that went bad. And he went to get even with the drug dealer and burned down the wrong person's house [and] killed an elderly gentleman. No doubt Cody belongs to be in prison. But at least in this instance, Cody was burnt while he was at maximum security. He was using the phone to contact a loved one and happened to make contact with a pipe there that they used to heat that was not insulated. And he would like to go ahead and stick some sort of redress for that. And they're raising that as a defense to the lawsuit, saying he's civilly dead, he can't assert a claim and he can't come before the court.”

On what happens if the inmates are eventually released

“There are two different types of life sentences, as you know. One is life with parole. One is life without parole. The ones who have the ability to get parole, it is really unclear when they get out what their status is under the Civil Death Act. And it's not necessarily clear when they come outside of the control of what we call the adult correctional institutes and whether if they're on parole, they're still deemed to be imprisoned, in that respect. It's just never been tested.”

On why she thinks Rhode Island holds onto this law

“I think there's two problems. One is that Rhode Island has a very short legislative session. They have other things that they're far more concerned about than 240 inmates who have life sentences. I think that's part of it. I think the other part of it is that there's not the political will. We don't have people writing their senators or writing their representatives. I wish they would. But we don't have the political will.”

On whether the state’s prison system is exploiting the law

“Well, I have to believe that now. And I believe it because we have prisoners that have these life sentences that have clearly been injured due to what could easily be intentional conduct. And we have the Department of Corrections stepping behind this law through their attorneys and saying, 'No, no, you can't bring these suits.' Any other inmate that was there who suffered the same sort of event could easily bring suit ... except those with life sentences.”


Marcelle Hutchins produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Serena McMahon and Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on November 22, 2019.

Lisa Mullins Twitter Host, All Things Considered
Lisa Mullins is the voice of WBUR’s All Things Considered. She anchors the program, conducts interviews and reports from the field.

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