Lawsuit challenges massive overuse of solitary in Florida prisons
Admire Harvard has spent nearly 10 years locked up in solitary confinement in the Florida prison system.
Harvard, a 28-year-old black transgender woman, has been subjected to solitary confinement in a men’s prison since September 2009. Due to conditions in solitary confinement, she suffers from depression, anxiety and auditory hallucinations, and has attempted suicide multiple times. Harvard was 18 years old and diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was first placed in solitary by prison staff who accused her of lying to receive a high-calorie meal. She was initially sentenced to 60 days in solitary confinement, but has remained there ever since.
Citing scientific, medical and mental health evidence, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida Legal Services and the Florida Justice Institute have filed a federal class action lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC). The lawsuit challenges the FDC’s use of solitary confinement as cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. Harvard is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Harvard v. Inch, filed today in the Northern District of Florida, Tallahassee Division. The lawsuit was filed under her birth name, Jac’Quann Harvard.
“At any given time, there are close to 10,000 people locked away in solitary confinement in Florida’s prison system, many of them for months, even years, in cells smaller than a parking space,” said Shalini Goel Agarwal, SPLC senior supervising attorney.
Solitary confinement is increasingly recognized by medical and mental health professionals as torture. Individuals subject to isolation are more likely to exhibit a range of conditions, from anxiety and depression to hallucinations, paranoia and suicidality. These effects begin to manifest within hours or days of isolation, worsening with time and causing permanent damage, especially to those in isolation for months or years. Apart from the devastating harm it inflicts on those who experience it, isolation also puts communities at risk when people in isolation are released, is inordinately expensive when appropriately staffed, and neither reduces prison violence nor promotes public safety.
Nationwide, about 4.5 percent of the prison population is in solitary, but in Florida it’s more than double that – about 10 percent.
“Depriving people of any human contact exacerbates mental health conditions and leaves people unprepared to face life outside of prison, even though most will be returned to their communities,” said Christopher Jones, executive director of Florida Legal Services. “Solitary is unnecessary, cruel and counterproductive.”
The lawsuit argues that the FDC knows about the damaging effects of solitary and hasn’t done enough to address them. For example, the FDC’s director of mental health acknowledged that while those in extended solitary confinement are about 3 percent of Florida’s total prison population, they constitute 40 percent of the people receiving inpatient mental health treatment.
“Many jurisdictions have reduced or sought to eliminate solitary confinement,” said Dante Trevisani, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute. “But Florida is an outlier that has shown no interest in ending this barbaric practice, even for vulnerable groups such as juveniles, people with mental illnesses, and people with disabilities.”
The rate of suicide is much higher for people who have been in solitary. From January 2013 to August 2018 at least 46 of the 80 individuals in FDC custody who committed suicide were in isolation and another 24 had previously been in solitary.
Over 60 percent of the people in solitary are black, a jarring racial disparity in a state that is majority white.
“Racial disparities plague Florida’s criminal justice system, and solitary is no exception,” added Agarwal. “The unnecessary and abusive use of solitary confinement is part of Florida’s legacy of mass incarceration of people of color, and it is long past time for it to end.”
Earlier this year, the SPLC examined solitary confinement in Florida prisons in the report Solitary Confinement: Inhumane, Ineffective and Wasteful.
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