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2:34 AM Mon, Sept. 24th

Dozens of Arizona death-row inmates no longer in solitary

The prison in Florence, Arizona where some inmates on death-row are no longer facing isolation. (AP Photo/file)

The prison in Florence, Arizona where some inmates on death-row are no longer facing isolation. (AP Photo/file)

PHOENIX (AP) –For the first time in 20 years, dozens of prisoners on Arizona’s death row are not spending their days in solitary confinement with prison guards as their only human contact.

The state Department of Corrections earlier this year moved all but 27 of 120 death-row inmates to a Florence prison where they can walk outside and eat meals with others in the common area instead of in their tiny cells.

Here, their cells open and are not sealed by a steel door. They can also play basketball and volleyball or go on the prison recreational fields for several hours each day.

What spurred the change is up for debate.

Attorneys with the Arizona Capital Representation Project sued the state agency in 2015 on behalf of inmate Scott Nordstrom, who is on death row for six murders committed during two Tucson robberies in 1996. The lawsuit alleged the Corrections Department’s treatment of inmates was unconstitutional. It violated inmates’ right to due process and an amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment, the attorneys said.

Corrections officials countered that they were already working to change the system when the lawsuit was filed.

Carson McWilliams, the division director for the Corrections Department, said in court documents that Arizona was already experimenting with allowing more socializing for death-row inmates after seeing positive results in other state prison systems. State officials also disputed the application of the term “solitary confinement.” However, the United Nations passed guidelines in 2015 defining imprisonment and solitary confinement, saying solitary is “confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact.”

The lawsuit was settled in March, the Arizona Republic reported. Attorneys for Nordstrom declined to comment, saying they are still suing for nearly $150,000 in legal fees.

Arizona death-row prisoners were moved into maximum security after the wife of one tried to orchestrate a prison break in 1997 while he was working on a chain gang at the Florence prison. The incident resulted in both the prisoner and his wife being killed by return gunfire.