TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - In a ruling last week, the case Harvard v. Inch, challenging Florida’s use of solitary confinement will continue to proceed toward trial.
The state of Florida asked the Northern District of Florida to dismiss the case and the Court rejected the state’s arguments ruling, “Defendants’ argument is premised on a fundamental misunderstanding of Plaintiffs’ claims. This case is not about the type of restrictive housing or the specific prison where the Plaintiffs were housed,” the Court said in its ruling. “Instead, Plaintiffs 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 class action lawsuit, Harvard v. Inch, was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Florida Legal Services, and the Florida Justice Institute against the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC). The lawsuit challenges the FDC’s use of solitary confinement, also referred to as “isolation” 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.
“This opinion 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,” said Shalini Goel Agarwal, senior supervising attorney for criminal justice reform in Florida with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “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.”
The lawsuit covers people who are or will be in solitary confinement, including approximately 10,000 individuals who are alone or doubled up in their cells in four different types of confinement under the FDC rules in nearly all prisons throughout the state. State officials sought to dismiss the case partly by alleging that it was improper to group everyone in isolation together since FDC has classified them differently, but the court rejected that argument.
Medical and mental health professionals increasingly recognize solitary confinement 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 within hours or days of isolation, worsening with time and causing permanent damage. 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 of the population.
“We isolate twice as many people as the average state, and state officials have never addressed that disparity,” said Christopher Jones, executive director of Florida Legal Services. “That makes Florida a significant outlier, but state officials can change this right now. Other states like Colorado and Washington have shown eliminating solitary confinement makes it easier to provide mental health services without sacrificing safety.”
Solitary makes rehabilitation harder, with many people in isolation developing serious mental health problems that make it harder to transition back to a normal life when they are released. 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.
“The majority of the people in solitary confinement will return to society at some point in their lives,” said Dante Trevisani, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute. “But solitary confinement makes rehabilitation nearly impossible. Florida should prepare people for life after prison—not thwart their transition by subjecting them to harmful isolation.”
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.
The Harvard v. Inch complaint is available here:
The ruling of Judge Walker denying the state’s motion to dismiss is here: https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/54_order_on_mtd.pdf
The SPLC’s report on solitary confinement in Florida prisons is available here:
A separate lawsuit has also been filed challenging the use of solitary detention in juvenile facilities in Florida. A copy of that lawsuit is available here: https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/doc._2_-_complaint.pdf