TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Department of Corrections is being sued over its use of solitary confinement in a complaint filed Wednesday by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which alleges the state's isolation techniques are cruel and can cause permanent damage.
The suit claims Florida uses solitary confinement at more than twice the national average rate and sometimes isolates prisoners from human contact for years, causing them to become depressed and suicidal and leading to other ailments.
"Isolation inflicts devastating harm on the individuals who experience it, places them and their families and communities at risk when they are released, is inordinately expensive when appropriately staffed, and does not reduce prison violence or promote public safety," the suit reads.
The lawsuit estimates that 10,000 inmates — about 10% of the state's prison population — are in solitary confinement; and that 1 in 7 of the inmates in solitary confinement across the country are in Florida. It also contends the punishment is unconstitutional because it is cruel and unusual.
The suit says the department "fails to consistently monitor people for signs of declining mental and physical health, or to meaningfully respond to those who are obviously suffering from the damaging effects caused by isolation."
"Unlike many other states, (the department) isolates people who suffer from a heightened risk of harm, such as teenagers, people with mental illness or intellectual disabilities, and people with physical disabilities, even though it is aware of the heightened risk to these populations," the suit says.
The department, which calls the practice "close management," said it hadn't received a copy of the complaint, but defended its handling of inmates. Spokeswoman Michelle Glady also said the number of prisoners in a solitary cell currently is less than 2%.
"Inmates who cause harm to those around them are placed in restrictive housing settings for the safety of other inmates and our officers," Glady said in an email. "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."
The department has three levels of close management, and prisoners are reevaluated every 90 to 180 days to see if they can "step down" into less restrictive housing. Glady said medical and mental health needs are met.
The lawsuit claims otherwise, and includes among its plaintiffs Jerome Burgess, 46, who has paralysis on his left side.
"He is losing mobility and range of motion on his right side because the tiny cell where Defendants isolate him at least 22 hours a day barely leaves him enough space to use his wheelchair and leaves him no space to ambulate," the suit says. "Defendants have also failed to provide him with the accommodations he needs to meaningfully participate in recreation in the exercise cages."