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Civil Death a Constitutional Concern in Rhode Island Prisons

— March 29, 2019

The practice lets courts consider prisoners serving life sentences as practically and legally “dead.”

Prisoners serving life sentences in Rhode Island are often declared legally dead, a practice civil rights advocates claim is outdated and unconstitutional.

According to the Associated Press, the New England state is one of a very few places where people can still be punished with “civil death.” Upheld by a century-old statute, prisoners declared legally dead can lose an assortment of rights, from owning property to annulling marriage.

Across the country, most civil death laws have been struck down, by judges and through successful litigation.

But Rhode Island’s law, which the AP says was enacted in 19090, is still enforced. On Tuesday, the state Supreme Court used the statute to dismiss a marriage-related lawsuit brought by inmate Cody-Allen Zab.

Along with finding that Zab can’t sue if he’s civilly dead, the court also questioned how he’d manage to marry in the first place.

Women Prison Employees Routinely Face Harassment
Photo by Hédi Benyounes on Unsplash

The bizarre set of circumstances has prompted the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to take on Zab’s case. The ACLU says it’s planning to sue over the statute’s constitutionality if the state legislature doesn’t repeal it this session.

The Associated Press reports that about 250 inmates are currently serving life sentences in Rhode Island, and thus may not be considered legally alive.

The tradition of declaring inmates dead apparently dates to the colonial era. Early American courts would enact civil death statutes as a way to strip prisoners condemned to death of their rights.

U.C. Davis School of Law Professor Gabriel J. Chin told the Associated Press that the concept of civil death was borrowed from English criminal law. Eventually, considering convicts legally dead became a recognized punishment in its own right.

A bill to repeal the statute is now pending in the Rhode Island legislature, with the House Judiciary Committee examining its parameters.

But a similar effort to overturn the antiquated practice was vetoed by former Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri in 2007.

Carcieri, says the AP, opined that life-sentence convicts have already been tried by a jury of their peers. In many cases, such prisoners have committed the most serious crimes against society, often murder.

“The loss of property, and even the right to marry, is not unreasonable,” Carcieri wrote.

Zab was convicted for the inadvertent killing of a 95-year old man in 2008 after trying to collect an over-due drug debt from someone else.

Four years later, in 2012, he managed to marry. Another year after that, he was granted a divorce.

But Zab’s recent requests to expunge his marriage record are raising questions over the applicability of the civil death statute. Zab, in fact, said his record should be expunged; as a civilly dead person, he argued the court shouldn’t retain a record of the marriage.

The same logic was employed by the Supreme Court, which ruled that a civilly dead person can neither marry nor sue.

The entire scenario has been derided by the ACLU. Steven Brown, director of the state’s chapter, said the law “makes absolutely no sense.”

“If you accept the premise, the Department of Corrections could waterboard an inmate serving a life sentence and they’d have no legal recourse because they’re allegedly dead,” Brown said.

The AP notes that a federal judge upheld the civil death law in 2016.


“Civil Death”

Inmates deemed ‘dead’ using century-old law in Rhode Island

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