Judge allows federal lawsuit over solitary confinement in Florida to continue

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A federal judge will allow a group of Florida prisoners to continue their lawsuit against the state over the use of solitary confinement in the state prison system.

In a ruling last week, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said the legal arguments from the Florida Department of Corrections, which was seeking a dismissal of the case, were based on “a fundamental misunderstanding” of the prisoners’ claim that solitary confinement amounts to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

The state had sought the dismissal of the lawsuit, arguing that the use of “restrictive housing” for inmates was not a constitutional violation.

But Walker rejected that argument in his Oct. 24 ruling.

“This case is not about the type of restrictive housing or the specific prison where the [inmates] were housed,” Walker wrote. “Instead, [the inmates] allege a systematic, statewide policy of isolation. And regardless of the type of isolation, the deprivation caused by the policy and practice of isolation are the same.”

The lawsuit, which was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida Legal Services, and the Florida Justice Institute in May, alleges approximately 10,000 Florida prisoners are being held in some type of solitary confinement. State prison officials dispute that number, saying a smaller group of inmates are in what they call “restrictive housing” or “close management.”

Shalini Goel Agarwal, a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said Walker’s ruling “accepts the premise that a correctional system, by creating various labels for solitary confinement, cannot evade the undeniable damage caused by locking people in tiny cells for nearly 24 hours a day.”

“Denying people basic human needs like normal human contact, exercise, and mental stimulation is incredibly harmful both to the people in isolation and the communities they will eventually return to,” Agarwal said in a written statement.