The SPLC and its allies filed a federal class action lawsuit challenging Florida’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.
The lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of Florida, Tallahassee Division, cites scientific, medical and mental health evidence against the practice.
Admire Harvard, one of the plaintiffs, spent nearly 10 years locked up in solitary confinement in the Florida prison system at the time the lawsuit was filed. Harvard, a 28-year-old black transgender woman, had 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 remained there long after.
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. Yet 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.
The lawsuit argues that the Florida Department of Corrections (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 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.