PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rhode Island is one of the few places where people can still be punished with “civil death” and civil rights advocates want the century-old practice to stop.
Inmates serving life in prison are deemed dead, by Rhode Island statute, with respect to property rights, the bond of matrimony and other civil rights, as if their natural death took place when they were convicted.
Most civil death laws in the United States have been repealed or successfully challenged in court. Most other countries never adopted the practice.
Rhode Island’s statute from 1909 is enforced. The state Supreme Court said Tuesday that inmate Cody-Allen Zab couldn’t litigate an issue with his marriage record because he’s civilly dead. The court also questioned how he got married in the first place.
The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union plans to sue over the statute’s constitutionality if the legislature doesn’t repeal it this session. About 250 people are currently serving life in prison in Rhode Island.
In Colonial America, civil death was used to take a person’s rights away while they were awaiting execution for a felony, said UC Davis School of Law Professor Gabriel J. Chin, an expert in the collateral consequences of criminal conviction. Chin said Wednesday that the practice, borrowed from England, became a punishment in and of itself.
Civil death largely fell out of favour among states and criminal justice reformers in the 20th century and it was undermined by court rulings, he added. Rhode Island, Idaho, New York and the U.S. Virgin Islands are the only places Chin knows of that retain some form of civil death.
A bill to repeal the Rhode Island statute was introduced in February. The House Judiciary Committee is studying the bill.
Former Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri vetoed a similar bill in 2007. In his veto message, Carcieri said that people sentenced to life have been found by a jury to have committed the most serious possible crimes against society and in many cases stripped another person of their life.
“The loss of property, and even the right to marry, is not unreasonable,” he wrote.
Zab was sentenced in 2008 for setting fire to a home to attempt to recoup a drug debt. A 95-year-old man, who wasn’t the intended victim, died.
Zab got married in 2012 and was granted a divorce in 2013. He was allowed to get married because an assistant director at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections misunderstood the statute, J.R. Ventura, the department’s spokesman, said Wednesday. Ventura said they’ve revised their process for deciding these matters to prevent anything like that from happening again.
Zab argued that his marriage record should be expunged because an inmate serving a life sentence is “civilly dead” and can’t get married in Rhode Island.
In denying his appeal, the Rhode Island Supreme Court references its decision last year that struck down a negligence lawsuit brought by another prisoner. The court decided Dana Gallop couldn’t sue the Department of Corrections over his attack by another prisoner because he’s dead.
Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, said the law “makes absolutely no sense” and significantly impairs the legitimate constitutional rights of inmates.
“If you accept the premise, the DOC could waterboard an inmate serving a life sentence and they’d have no legal recourse because they’re allegedly dead,” he said.
The ACLU previously sued over this statute on Zab’s behalf. Zab sought to get married again after his 2013 divorce, but corrections officials denied his request, ACLU volunteer attorney Sonja Deyoe said.
A federal judge upheld the civil death law in 2016. Deyoe said Wednesday she tried to challenge it, but then Zab decided he didn’t want to get married after all.