Solitary confinement of mentally ill inmates subject of class-action lawsuit

Updated at 11:20 a.m. on Oct. 28, 2019

PROVIDENCE – On behalf of incarcerated Rhode Islanders with mental illnesses, attorneys on Friday filed a class-action lawsuit against the R.I. Department of Corrections for its persistent use of solitary confinement as a punishment.

The lawsuit accuses the state of inhumane treatment and violation of federal law that protects individuals with disabilities, describing conditions for inmates that include months on end without sunlight or meaningful contact with other people. The use of solitary confinement has exacerbated the mental illnesses of the inmates, attorneys report.

At the Adult Correctional Institutes, in Cranston, about 100 inmates are punished with solitary confinement each year, the lawsuit states, typically for behaviors that are a symptom of their mental illness.

Filed in U.S. District Court, the lawsuit names six inmates as plaintiffs, each of whom has been diagnosed with significant and ongoing mental illnesses that require medical treatment.

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They are among the estimated 15% to 20% of ACI inmates who have serious mental illnesses. The lawsuit argues that class-action status is warranted due to the numbers of people affected by solitary-confinement policies.

A partnership of nonprofits has brought the case forward, including Disability Rights Rhode Island, the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project and its Rhode Island affiliate, the Rhode Island ACLU.

In a statement released to the media, Morna Murray, executive director of Disability Rights R.I., said people who are seriously mentally ill often have been jailed for actions that resulted from their illness, and then are subjected to a harmful policy of solitary isolation that makes their conditions worse.

“There is absolutely no remedial value to this practice whatsoever; it is inhumane and unconscionable,” Murray said.

Said Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island: “The state’s use of solitary confinement is unconstitutional, plain and simple. Decades of research and experience tell us that it damages people, sometimes irreversibly, especially if they have mental illness.”

The R.I. Department of Corrections, through a spokesman, disputed the claims made in the lawsuit.

The priority of the department is the health and safety of inmates, said spokesman J.R. Ventura, in an emailed statement. “We are committed to providing compassionate and appropriate care to everyone in our custody. We have taken proactive steps to ensure our staff is trained on best practices in helping those with mental illness, and we have partnered across state agencies to guarantee high-quality mental health care for inmates. We are proud of the practices that have been implemented and strongly dispute the ACLU’s inaccurate claims.”

According to the lawsuit, conditions in the solitary confinement cells are often dire.

The cells – which the lawsuit said are the size of a parking space – are often filthy, including infested with vermin. The rooms are kept illuminated 24 hours a day and are designed to allow the inmate minimal contact with anyone else.

There is no limit on the amount of time that a person can be placed in such cells, the lawsuit states. Some people were placed in isolation for a year or more. Under state policy, inmates in confined spaces are let out for recreation for one hour a day, five days a week.

Charlene Liberty, the lead plaintiff in the case, was described in the court papers as a 36-year-old with a history of depression, head injury, substance-use disorder and learning disabilities. She was held in solitary confinement this year and while there tried to commit suicide several times, the lawsuit states. As a result of those attempts, she was pepper-sprayed by prison personnel, the lawsuit stated.

After she was hospitalized for a suicide attempt in May, Liberty was returned to the ACI, where she was punished by personnel and reassigned to “solitary confinement for attempting suicide.”

In a released statement, Liberty said no one should be treated with extreme isolation.

“I hate to see anyone treated the way I was treated – aggressively thrown into segregation, stripped down, made to feel less than a person and placed in a cell with no one to talk to, waiting for them to tell you what you did and how many days or weeks you are going to be isolated, left alone with your thoughts and emotions making things all that much worse,” she said.

The length of time that inmates with mental illnesses were left in isolation cells varied, according to the lawsuit. But the average time for “administrative confinement” was 208 days. The average length for disciplinary confinement was 25 days.

The lawsuit is seeking several actions, including an increase in the number of mental-health personnel assigned to the ACI and the number of beds available in the Residential Treatment Unit, which was established as an alternate to solitary confinement.

The RTU, which now has just eight beds for men, began in 2017 after a statewide review by a special commission of the General Assembly. In that commission process, a state official said Rhode Island had only 11 clinical social workers for 3,000 prisoners.

The lawsuit seeks actions, including the following: alleviate conditions of confinement for detainees with severe mental illnesses so they no longer have isolation, sensory deprivation and lack of social or human contact; ensure that detainees are housed in settings that allow them access to programs and services; and create sufficient beds in the residential treatment units to accommodate both women and men who would otherwise be placed in solitary confinement.

Mary MacDonald is a staff writer for the PBN. Contact her at macdonald@pbn.com.