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Federal lawsuit says solitary confinement in Delaware is 'cruel and unusual'

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Tom Byrne - Delaware Public Media
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ACLU legal director Richard Morse (center) joins CLASI executive director Daniel Atkins (right) and Joanna Cline (left) from Pepper Hamilton LLC in announcing a new lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections over solitary confinement policies

Two Delaware nonprofits say the state Department of Correction is violating mentally ill prisoners’ constitutional rights under current solitary confinement regulations in a new federal lawsuit.

The Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. (CLASI) and the Delaware chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed the case Thursday, arguing that these regulations are cruel and unusual and defy the Eighth Amendment.

“Most of the inmates currently in solitary confinement are one day going to be released from prison,” said Daniel Atkins, executive director of CLASI, at a press conference. “If most of these individuals are going to someday be out, should we be treating or should we be torturing?”

About one third of prisoners in solitary confinement at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna are identified as having mental health problems – 60 of which are classified as serious conditions according to the suit.

The groups contend that inmates are kept in an eight-foot by eleven-foot cell for 24 hours a day and denied adequate medical and mental health care. They also can’t work, enroll in educational or rehabilitative programs or attend religious services, court documents say.

Some of those prisoners are allowed an hour of exercise three times a week in another segregated cell.

The suit contends that further degrades inmates’ mental states or acts as a catalyst to grow new mental illnesses in those who never experienced issues before arriving in solitary confinement.

Alternatives, like the maximum security special needs unit and Delaware Psychiatric Center are used infrequently, according to court documents, and those that return are often put back in isolation

Atkins says his group believes solitary confinement may be constitutionally appropriate in limited circumstances, but that the State of Delaware’s policies go beyond an appropriate scope.

“Limit the scope, limit the duration and ensure the folks that are enduring it that have significant disabilities are not made much worse and left to deteriorate,” he said.

Currently, prison officials can sentence prisoners for up to three months of solitary punishment, with any disciplinary infraction leading to more accumulated time.

In a statement, Department of Correction officials say they share the concern about the effects isolation can have on inmates and their eventual reentry to society, though they have to balance that with the safety of everyone else at the facility.

The letter said the agency "actively engaged" with CLASI and ACLU officials over the past several months and given them access to "hundreds" of prisoners.

“We believe that continuing the constructive engagement among all interested parties that is resulting in tangible reform is the best way forward, instead of protracted litigation that would divert limited state funds from programs and treatment to attorneys and legal fees," said DOC Commissioner Robert Coupe.

Legislation from Rep. James Johnson (D-New Castle) introduced in January would have limited solitary confinement to a maximum of four weeks, but it was tabled in a House committee.

Anyone sent there as punishment, under the proposal, would have been limited to 15 consecutive days or 20 days total in any 60-day period. Those diagnosed with severe mental illness would also be exempt from punishment involving isolation, as well as juveniles.

Another resolution passed by the General Assembly and backed by DOC to hire an outside expert to assess the department’s practices was not funded in the most recent budget according to the Controller General’s office. An estimate from that office pegged the cost at $75,000.

Recently, a handful of states including Colorado, Indiana and Pennsylvania have limited solitary confinement practices for mentally ill inmates.

“There are significant expenditures in stopping this use of solitary on mentally ill people, but the cost is constitutionally no excuse. It must be stopped,” said Richard Morse, ACLU’s legal director.

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