Across the country, a growing consensus of medical and mental health professionals have equated placing prisoners in solitary confinement to torture.
In Florida, a group of civil rights groups suing to end the practice have measured rates of confinement in state prisons at twice the national average, including hundreds of people who have been in isolation for six to 20 years.
But officials with the state Department of Corrections have long defended their agency against criticism of solitary confinement simply by saying they don’t use it. Instead, the officials refer to their practices as “restrictive housing,” to include administrative and disciplinary confinement, as well as “close management” and “maximum management.”
For the purposes of a lawsuit aiming to halt all varieties of confinement in Florida prisons, a federal judge in the U.S. Northern District of Florida last week decided those terms were distinctions without a difference.
Since May, the state Department of Corrections has been fighting a lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida Legal Services and the Florida Justice Institute, who have argued against confinement in Florida prisons: “No matter the name, the practice violates constitutional standards.”
Last week, U.S. Judge Mark Walker accepted that premise, and rejected each of the Florida Department of Corrections’ arguments to dismiss the lawsuit, waving the litigation toward the discovery phase. The ruling was forceful, stating three separate times that the state agency had premised its defenses on a “fundamental misunderstanding” of the plaintiffs’ claims.
Though the prison department attempted to narrow the lawsuit to certain venues and types of confinement, Judge Walker said the case was “not about the type of restrictive housing or the specific prison where the plaintiffs were housed” and was instead about 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,” Walker wrote in his order.
The FDC did not respond to a request for comment over the weekend, but the agency typically does not comment on active litigation.
The lawsuit’s lead plaintiff is Jac`Quann “Admire” Harvard, a 28-year-old black transgender woman being housed at Wakulla Correctional Institution Annex, a men’s prison.
After being in prison for only two months, Harvard was first placed in confinement for 60 days when she was 18 years old, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and prescribed anti-anxiety medications, according to the lawsuit.
Within her first three months of isolation, Harvard received nine additional disciplinary infractions, adding 270 days in isolation, the lawsuit said.
Several other prisoners are included in the complaint, which is still pending class certification — the next major hurdle for the lawsuit to clear.
Shalini Goel Agarwal, SPLC’s senior supervising attorney for criminal justice reform in Florida, said the goal of the lawsuit is to effectively halt confinement as it is currently being practiced.
“Florida is locking up thousands of people in cells no bigger than a parking spot for over 22 hours a day,” Agarwal said. “Florida knows these conditions harm people but is continuing to spend taxpayer money to defend these practices.”
In the past, the department has told reporters that its staff uses confinement only when “absolutely necessary” and contended that “very few individuals in restrictive housing are in a solitary setting.”
In contrast, the civil rights groups behind the lawsuit have taken snapshots to get a sense of how many people are in various forms of confinement on a given day in Florida prisons, claiming that amounted to about 10,000, rendering the state an “outlier” among others.
“[Florida] uses isolation indiscriminately as a catch-all punishment for people with behavior problems ranging from minor to severe, including individuals whose behavior is a manifestation of their disability” the groups’ amended complaint said.