Saying solitary confinement is cruel, groups file suit against state

Laurette Philipsen speaks to reporters at a Tallahassee press event where a lawsuit against the state Dept. of Corrections for placing people on solitary confinement was announced.

Laurette Philipsen served more than eight years at a Florida prison for grand theft. Undoubtedly the worst part of her time at Marion County’s Lowell Correctional Institute Annex, she says, was the 28 straight days she spent locked up in solitary confinement after being disciplined while on work release.

After three days in isolation, her mind began playing games with her.

“You don’t know what time of day it is. You have nothing to do. Nothing, except be in a cell and lay in your bed. You have nobody to talk to. You have no interactions with anybody. After about two weeks you start considering how to end your life and finding, deep within yourself, a way not to do that.”

Philipsen spoke at a press conference in Tallahassee on Wednesday, where three public interest groups announced a class action lawsuit against the Florida Department of Correction’s use of solitary confinement.

Citing scientific, medical and mental health evidence, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida Legal Services, and the Florida Justice Institute claim that the state’s use of solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

“The Florida Department of Corrections, which has the third largest prison population in the country, warehouses approximately 10,000 people in isolation. That’s more than ten percent of people in Florida prisons. And that rate is more than twice the national average,” said Shalini Goel Agarwal, Southern Poverty Law Center’s senior supervising attorney.

The suit is filed on behalf of five jailed prisoners who are in solitary confinement or have been held there in the past.

One of them is Angel Meddler, a 21-year-old woman being held in isolation at Lowell Correctional Institution Annex. According to the lawsuit, within three days of her November 2015 arrival, she was isolated for 30 days because she refused to do push-ups as ordered by a correctional officer. She is now back in solitary confinement.

“She’s talking about suicide and then – like if for some reason I don’t write her within a week’s time – she’ll talk about killing herself,” said her mother, Ruthie Mitchell, who spoke to reporters Wednesday. “It’s hard for her. It’s hard for me. …she’s not a bad person. She’s young. She’s made mistakes.”

According to the lawsuit, authorities at Lowell hospitalized Meddler for “suicidality” for one month in 2016, and have also placed her in a watch cell at least twelve times, each time sending her back to isolation without additional mental health treatment.

Another inmate, a 17-year-old teenager described only as “J.H.”, is one of only two teenagers currently serving time at Florida State Prison in Starke. In the last five months, the suit alleges, prison guards have taken him to the exercise cages just once and dayroom twice, each time completely alone.

“He often thinks about death, and cycles through feelings of agitation, frustration, depression, and extreme restlessness,” the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit argues that the Department of Corrections knows about the damaging effects of solitary confinement and hasn’t done enough to address them. As evidence, the lawsuit notes that the Department of Correction’s director of mental health, Tom Reimers, acknowledged that the number of prisoners who have been isolated in solitary confinement only makes up about three percent of the prison population, but those prisoners account for some 40 percent of the inmates who receive mental health services.

Although the maximum number of days for a disciplinary type of charge is 60 days, there are people who have enough consecutive terms to be in isolation for the next twenty years, the lawsuit alleges.

The United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Mendez, said in 2011 that prolonged solitary confinement is a form of torture, and wrote that the U.S. uses solitary confinement “more extensively than any other country, for longer periods, and with fewer guarantees.”

Some states are reforming solitary confinement policies. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice stopped using solitary confinement for discipline in 2017.  And Arizona ended its longstanding policy of holding all death row prisoners in solitary confinement in 2017 as well.

The Florida Department of Corrections hasn’t made reforms.

In the recently concluded legislative session, state Sen. Bill Montford, a Democrat from Tallahassee, sponsored a bill that would have banned the Department of Corrections from placing any youths in solitary confinement except under certain circumstances. It was approved in two different committees but never made it to the floor (a House companion was never heard).

A Florida Department of Corrections spokesperson said that of 2 p.m. on Wednesday that the agency had not been served in the lawsuit.

Here is the department’s response in full:

“The Florida Department of Corrections is committed to providing for the safety and wellbeing of all inmates in our custody. Inmates who cause harm to those around them are placed in restrictive housing settings for the safety of other inmates and our officers.

Close Management is the separation of an inmate from the general population, for reasons of security or the order and effective management of the institution. An inmate is placed in close management when the inmate through his or her behavior, has demonstrated an inability to live in the general population without abusing the rights and privileges of others.

There are three individual levels, which were established to enable an inmate to “step down” into housing with more privileges. The inmates in these assigned levels are systematically reviewed by the institutional classification team and state classification office. These inmates are reevaluated every 90-180 days to determine if the level of housing remains appropriate.

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.

There are processes in place to evaluate these inmates and transition them back into general population. Close management is only utilized when absolutely necessary to ensure the safe and secure operation of our institutions.”

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