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Florida Prisons Sued Over Solitary Confinement Practices

A view of a hallway from a jail cell.
Matthew Ansley
A view of a hallway from a jail cell.

Florida is an “outlier” in prison systems across the nation when it comes to the use of solitary confinement, according to a 90-page federal lawsuit filed Wednesday that alleges the state Department of Corrections is violating the constitutional rights of inmates.

A view of a hallway from a jail cell.
Credit Matthew Ansley / Unsplash
A view of a hallway from a jail cell.

Attorneys with the Southern Poverty Law Center named the state agency and Secretary Mark Inch as defendants in the lawsuit, which contends state prison officials “discriminate against people with disabilities in its use of isolation” and are “deliberately indifferent to the substantial risk of harm caused” by isolation policies.

Ruthie Michell, the mother of Angel Meddler, who has been in solitary confinement for a cumulative three years, choked up Wednesday at a news conference when she told reporters that her daughter is very depressed and suicidal living in a “cage.”

“She really is just going crazy there,” Mitchell said.

Florida’s prison system is “widely overusing” the practice of solitary confinement to manage inmates, sometimes locking them up in cells that are no bigger than a parking spaces over often-minor infractions, according to Shalini Goel Agarwal, a senior supervising attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Agarwal added that while many states are reducing the use of solitary confinement as a punishment, Florida uses the practice to manage 10 percent of its population, or roughly 10,000 inmates at any given time.

“Despite their knowledge of the risk of harm, defendants (state officials) have no policies to exclude known vulnerable people from isolation, including, but not limited to people with serious mental illness or intellectual disabilities, pregnant women, juveniles, or people with histories of suicide attempts,” the lawsuit said.

Michelle Glady, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman, did not comment on the lawsuit because the department had not been served with the case. But she said the department uses solitary confinement for security reasons or to effectively manage prisons. She added it is only used when “absolutely necessary.”

“Protections are in place to ensure all medical and mental health needs of these inmates are being met. Mandatory visits from security officers, chaplaincy and medical are made routinely to inmates in this level of housing,” Glady said in a statement.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Tallahassee by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida Legal Services and the Florida Justice Institute, accuses the department of violating a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment and violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Laurette Philipsen, a former inmate who was placed in isolation, told reporters Wednesday that after three days in a room where you can’t determine whether it is night or day, “your mind starts playing games,” and the effects have continued.

“I can’t sleep for more than three hours at a time,” Philipsen said. “At 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., I am awake. By 8 a.m., I am tired and take another three-hour nap. This pattern has not changed.”

Highlighted in the lawsuit are the cases of five inmates, some of whom have been diagnosed with mental illness, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Admire Harvard, a transgender woman who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, has spent nearly 10 years locked up in solitary confinement, according to the lawsuit.

The complaint also points to the case of Jerome Burgess, 46-year-old inmate isolated in Suwannee Correctional Institution. Burgess uses a wheelchair due to paralysis on the left side of his body and cannot urinate without the assistance of a catheter. Attorneys allege he is “losing mobility and range of motion” because there is “no space to ambulate” in the tiny cell where he stays for at least 22 hours a day.

Agarwal said the ultimate goal is to have the state abolish the isolation practice, but the lawsuit is requesting that the court force the department to revise its policies on isolation to “accommodate the needs of people with disabilities and minimize the traumatic impact of isolation,” as soon as “practical.”

Attorneys also point to one detained juvenile, identified by initials J.H., who has cycled in and out of isolation in response to “behavior related to his immaturity and difficulty adapting to prison at such a young age.”

During the 2019 legislative session, which ended last week, Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, filed a proposal that would have prohibited youths from being placed in solitary confinement except in emergency cases. The bill died in a committee.

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