The ACLU of Rhode Island today filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of a 106-year-old statute that declares inmates serving life sentences at the ACI to be “civilly dead.” The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court by ACLU volunteer attorney Sonja Deyoe, is on behalf of two ACI inmates and the women who have been barred from marrying them because of the “civil death” law. Rhode Island apparently remains one of only three states that still has on the books a law like this, whose origins date back to ancient English common law.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are East Providence resident Shelby Ferreira and inmate Cody-Allen Zab, and Warwick resident Sharen Underwood and inmate John Pacheco, Jr. Last year, relying on the “civil death” law the Department of Corrections denied Zab permission to marry Ferreira. Regarding Underwood and Pacheco, the DOC expressed no objections to their marrying back in 2006, but the City of Warwick at that time refused to issue a license. Last year, when the two once again sought permission to marry, it was the DOC that denied the request.

In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a prison regulation that barred inmates from marrying. The court held that “inmate marriages, like others, are expressions of emotional support and public commitment” and that a ban on such marriages was “not reasonably related to legitimate penological objectives.”

As far back in 1976, a court struck down Missouri’s civil death statute, noting that “the concept of civil death has been condemned by virtually every court and commentator to study it over the last thirty years.” The court observed that such laws had been characterized as “archaic,”’ “outmoded,” “an outdated and inscrutable common law precept,” and “a medieval fiction in a modern world.” In 1937, when 18 states still had civil death laws, a law review article called the concept “outworn.”

The lawsuit seeks a court order declaring the civil death law unconstitutional as applied to bar an inmate serving a life sentence and a non-prisoner from marrying, and also seeks to prevent Warwick city officials from denying a marriage license based on the law.

ACLU attorney Deyoe said today: “Marriage is a fundamental right which should be available to everyone irrespective of who they choose to marry.” Plaintiff Ferreira added: “I have never been in trouble with the law, and I have been employed and tax paying since the age of fourteen. But since I am in love with an incarcerated person, I am denied my right to marry. In a state devoted to marriage equality, this is wrong.”

ACLU of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown said: “This law is an antiquated vestige of an ancient era. If inmates given a life sentence can remain married while in prison, there is no legitimate reason to bar them and those who want to marry them from doing so after they are sentenced. Prisoners lose many rights, but the fundamental right to marry should not be one of them.”

The statute at issue reads in full: “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. 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.”