Approximately 300 convicted inmates in Florida spend years in “permanent solitary confinement.” A contract with jail administrators promises more compassionate circumstances.

A new settlement in a lengthy federal lawsuit that challenged the isolation of Florida’s death row inmates for decades promises more compassionate care for the state’s condemned.

In late April, U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard of Jacksonville authorized a settlement in which the Florida Department of Corrections agreed to permit qualified death-sentenced convicts to spend more time outside of their cells, with some being permitted to work within the death row housing unit. Among other measures, the agreement ensures access to mental health treatment, including psychiatric care.

According to the attorneys who filed the complaint, the shift signals a dramatic turn in the history of death punishment in Florida and an improvement in the safety and efficiency of the state’s prison system.

It’s been a tenet of our legal system since its inception that everyone deserves humane, responsible confinement, regardless of what they’ve done or what they’ve been convicted of, said Evan Shea, a lawyer with the Venable law firm in Washington, D.C., who was part of the team that shepherded the lawsuit. As we get a deeper understanding of the impacts of isolation on mental health, it becomes abundantly evident that extended seclusion is neither compassionate nor just.

Officials from the Florida Department of Corrections did not reply to requests for comment for this article.

Since the 1970s, death row inmates in Florida have been held in what the complaint calls “permanent solitary confinement.” It is a state like limbo that normally lasts decades and occasionally results in execution, but usually does not.

The condemned spend nearly 24 hours a day in cramped, windowless cells at Union Correctional Institution, located near the hamlet of Raiford between Jacksonville and Gainesville. The cells are furnished with a small television, a bunk bed, a combination toilet and sink, and a tiny writing desk.

The inmates consume their meals in their cells. They only leave for quick baths and three hours of outdoor play each week. The majority of prisoners’ interactions with other people consist of hearing males in nearby cells and the occasional passage of a correctional officer.

The action, first filed in 2017, lists as plaintiffs eight prisoners who have spent between four and thirty years on execution row. The complaint cites research demonstrating the negative impacts of long-term solitary confinement, including increased worry and anxiousness, rumination, confused thinking, chronic sadness, mood swings, hallucinations, suicidal thoughts, and general physical and mental decline.

The settlement intends to bring about change, beginning with an arrangement that allows qualified convicts to spend at least 15 hours and up to 20 hours each week in a newly constructed day room. There, they may socialize, watch television, and use multimedia kiosks in the event they’d like to educate themselves via sites like In addition, they will have more access to telephones to connect with loved ones.

Additionally, prison authorities agreed to increase outdoor leisure time to six hours each week. According to the settlement, they will also put a sunshade in the leisure area to combat the strong Florida heat.

Inmates who qualify may also hold institutional occupations. Shea stated that such chores may include cleaning the death row dwelling complex.

Based on administrative regulations, a prison classification team will assess whether inmates are qualified to participate in the reforms. According to the settlement, the regulations exclude offenders who have committed serious violations of prison rules, such as assault, murder, or attempted escape.

The compromise fell short of all the attorneys for the condemned had had desired, most notably the installation of air conditioning. However, the attorneys viewed the deal as a triumph.

“This will result in a more efficient jail operation,” Shea added. “It is not an effective method to manage a jail if inmates are subjected to extreme psychological stress. This results in dissatisfied inmates, inmates who are unstable and respond in ways that create a strain on correctional staff and the prison administration.

A little more than 300 inmates are now on death row in Florida. Most have resided there for more than ten years. Many have lived there for decades.

Tommy Zeigler, who has been on death row since 1976 after a jury convicted him guilty of murdering four people at his Winter Garden furniture company, has the longest sentence. Ziegler maintains his innocence and has garnered substantial public support as he pursues further DNA testing in his case.