Capital punishment has long been abolished in Rhode Island, but an archaic, century-old law allows the state to inflict another kind of “death” on some prisoners.
Under the terms of the provision – which was enacted in 1909 and remains in effect – people who are serving life sentences in the Ocean State are considered dead for most legal purposes.
The language it uses is strikingly explicit – and, from a contemporary vantage point, unsettling.
“Every person imprisoned in the adult correctional institutions for life shall, with respect to all rights of property, to the bond of matrimony and to all civil rights and relations of any nature whatsoever, be deemed to be dead in all respects, as if his or her natural death had taken place at the time of conviction,” it reads.
Paradoxically, it continues: “However, the bond of matrimony shall not be dissolved, nor shall the rights to property or other rights of the husband or wife of the imprisoned person be terminated or impaired, except on the entry of a lawfully obtained decree for divorce.”
The law has garnered renewed interest in recent days as a result of a story by Associated Press reporter Jennifer McDermott. She revisited the issue following a Rhode Island Supreme Court ruling in the case of ACI inmate Cody-Allen Zab, who was denied the ability to litigate a matter involving his marriage.
Zab, who was convicting of setting a 2008 fire that resulted in the death of a 95-year-old Pawtucket man, is certainly a less than sympathetic figure. But neither his conduct and character, nor those of any other specific inmate, should be a factor in the debate over “civil death.”
Rhode Island is one of a small number of places in which such laws remain on the books. Most similar provisions around the country have been repealed or struck down by courts.
The ACLU of Rhode Island intends to challenge the law if the General Assembly does not move to repeal it during the current session. In speaking for McDermott’s story, Steven Brown, the organization’s executive director, highlighted the core issue with the law – that it creates a nonsensical, and potentially dangerous, gap in terms of civil rights protections.
“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,” he said.
On Twitter, the local ACLU chapter added: “It’s time for Rhode Island to join the rest of the civilized world and get this archaic and truly inhumane law off the books.”
We could not agree more. People who commit heinous crimes owe, and must pay, a debt to society. Considering them “dead” under the law does nothing to further that end, especially in a modern context. Instead, doing so suggests the civil liberties of all people are something less than inalienable – and that must be abided no longer.