Judicial Sentence of Life in Solitary Upheld

The court of appeals for the Second circuit affirmed a court imposed sentence of life imprisonment in solitary confinement and prohibiting all communication with anyone except the defendant's attorney and close family members after the district court had approved them. The appeals court also extended the "reasonableness" test of Turner v. Safley, 107 S.Ct. 2254 (1987) to judicially imposed conditions of confinement.

Luis Felipe, AKA King Blood, is the founder and leader of the Latin Kings. Felipe was imprisoned in a New York state prison when he founded the group. Over the years the group grew and Felipe directed their activities from his jail cell. This included murder, robbery, drug trafficking and assorted acts of violence. Felipe was indicted and convicted on 18 counts of murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and racketeering.

Felipe was sentenced to life imprisonment. In addition, judge John Martin imposed "special conditions of confinement." These required that Felipe be kept in solitary confinement and be prohibited from communicating with any codefendants or Latin Kings; be prohibited from corresponding with anyone except his lawyer and close family members approved by the court, with notice to the U.S. Attorney's office and prohibiting phone calls to everyone except his lawyer. Felipe later requested permission from the court to submit art work and poetry to magazines, write prisoner rights groups; correspond with "church people" and those who aren't members of the Latin Kings. Judge Martin denied all the requests.

The court of appeals affirmed Felipe's convictions which were based primarily on his prison correspondence directing his associates to commit criminal acts. The court held the letters were properly admitted into evidence despite numerous procedural violations by New York state prison officials in copying and intercepting Felipe's mail.

The court acknowledged that a series of statutes, 18 U.S.C. § 3621, 4001(b) and 4042, allow only the attorney general, through the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to determine the conditions of confinement imposed on federal prisoners. However, the court held that 18 U.S.C. § 3582(d), a racketeering statute, allows district courts to set special conditions of confinement on defendants convicted of racketeering. The court held the conditions of confinement were properly imposed because Felipe had committed all of his crimes while already in prison.

The court noted that the Turner test has, until now, typically been applied to restrictions imposed by prison officials, but it decided to use that test here. The court held that all the restrictions imposed on Felipe were reasonably related to the legitimate penological goal of preventing Felipe from committing more crimes and directing his criminal organization.

Because the district court retains jurisdiction over Felipe's conditions of confinement it can change or modify those conditions as it sees fit. The appeals court was satisfied that this resolved all of the "unique concerns" raised by the severity of the restrictions.

Since it is well documented that prolonged isolation and denial of human contact results in mental illness, Judge Martin's order can be viewed as tantamount to sentencing Felipe to insanity as well as death by incarceration. The Eighth amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment is nowhere mentioned by the court, presumably it does not apply to Felipe or judges. That Felipe cannot communicate with the courts, media or government officials or human rights organizations effectively eviscerates his rights to petition the government for the redress of grievances and free speech. Especially since no one has claimed that Felipe's criminal associates include judges, government officials, journalists or human rights workers. See: United States v. Felipe, 148 F.3d 101 (2nd Cir. 1998).