At the Third Circuit, a late prisoner's lawsuit has placed a spotlight on Eighth Amendment concerns with placing mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement.
Delaware officials are requesting a rehearing en banc after a Third Circuit panel recently revived a lawsuit brought by a mentally ill prisoner who spent seven months in solitary confinement, with the panel finding that qualified immunity did not apply.
A lower court had dismissed the lawsuit on qualified immunity grounds, but in a precedential opinion, the Third Circuit held on Nov. 28 that the allegations that Delaware prison officials "imposed conditions they knew carried a risk of substantial harm and caused him to suffer debilitating pain that served no penological purpose" trigger established Eighth Amendment protections.
"I think that what's so striking about this case is that it so clearly identifies the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment as it relates to the use of extended solitary confinement for individuals who have severe mental illnesses," ACLU of Delaware legal director Dwayne Bensing, who argued the plaintiff's case before the Third Circuit, told Law360.
The decision makes it clear that keeping prisoners with known mental illness in solitary confinement for long periods of time can amount to cruel and unusual punishment, according to Craig Dashiell, who was part of the Lowenstein Sandler LLP team that served as counsel for amicus appellant National Disability Rights Network in September 2021.
"The Third Circuit had previously discussed the harms that inmates with known mental illness face when placed in solitary confinement, and it has never been explicitly stated that this was a well-recognized, well-established right, under the law," Dashiell told Law360.
Michael B. Mushlin, a professor at Pace Law School and adviser to the publication Solitary Watch, characterized the opinion as reiterating "the obligation of courts to enforce constitutional rights for protecting people."
"The opinion does something that is different but equally significant than build on existing law. It makes crystal clear that the courts stand behind existing law and will not allow prison officials to skirt the solemn responsibility which the Constitution imposes on the government when it deprives a person of his or her liberty and assumes complete control over that person's life," he said.
The defense, however, called the opinion a "stark departure from the well-established qualified immunity analysis set forth by the Supreme Court" in its petition for a rehearing en banc. The opinion, they say, "runs contrary to the Supreme Court's precedent setting forth the qualified immunity analysis."
Delaware argues that U.S. Supreme Court precedent establishes that determinations of whether a right is clearly established "cannot be based upon general principles of law." They point to cases including Ashcroft v. al-Kidd , in which the Supreme Court found that the Ninth Circuit was incorrect to find clearly established law in the "broad history and purpose" of the Fourth Amendment.
The late Angelo Clark was placed in solitary confinement in January 2016 during his time at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware. According to court documents, prison officials knew that he had been treated for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder at the prison for at least a decade by then. He was placed in solitary confinement after an "incident" with another prisoner during mealtime.
"The story of what happened to him, you just hear over and over and over again," Mushlin said.
Clark was alone in his cell except for three one-hour periods each week, according to court documents. The Secure Housing Unit cells were about 11 feet by 8 feet with two 4-inch-wide windows, including one that faced the hallway. Four phone calls and four visitors were permitted each month, and meals were delivered through a slot in the door. Some of the symptoms he experienced during this isolation included increased hallucinations, paranoia and self-mutilation.
"For the seven months, Clark was trapped in a 'vicious cycle' where his mental illness would cause behavior that was punished by conditions that furthered his mental deterioration," U.S. Circuit Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo wrote in the opinion.
Clark died in January. Afterward, his estate took over as appellant in the case, which had been filed in July 2021.
At the beginning of the lawsuit, Clark asserted three forms of Eighth Amendment claims: One based on his lengthy stint in solitary confinement despite the prison knowing he had a mental illness, a retaliation claim alleging that the prison system put him in solitary confinement because of his mental illness, and a claim that he did not receive adequate mental health services while in solitary confinement.
The first claim was dismissed by the lower court, and a jury sided with the defense on the second two. The first claim was then brought before the Third Circuit.
The case was argued at the Third Circuit in March before U.S. Circuit Judges Restrepo, Jane Richards Roth and Julio M. Fuentes.
--Editing by Nicole Bleier and Jill Coffey.
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