“All around the country, we’re seeing states turn their back on long-term solitary confinement, which we know amounts to torture and is completely detrimental for the rehabilitation process,” said Amy Fettig, Deputy Director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “This is especially true for patients with mental illness… What we’re seeing in Rhode Island is unacceptable and unconstitutional, and we will fight to see them bring their system up to legal and moral standards.”
In May 2019, Charlene Liberty, an inmate at the Adult Correctional Institutions, attempted suicide by hanging and self-mutilation. Liberty has been recognized by the Rhode Island Department of Corrections (RIDOC) as suffering from severe and persistent mental illness (SPMI). After being released from psychiatric and intensive care at Kent Hospital, Liberty was immediately placed into solitary confinement, her belly and feet shackled, and monitored by an officer with pepper spray. When she threatened to injure herself, the officer used the spray.
Charlene Liberty is one of several inmates at the ACI suing the RIDOC alleging multiple constitutional violations of the rights of prisoners with SPMI. The lawsuit is being brought on behalf of the plaintiffs by the ACLU National Prison Project, the ACLU of Rhode Island and Disability Rights Rhode Island (DRRI). You can read the class action lawsuit here.
The complaint alleges violations of the plaintiffs’ constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment, as well as violations of federal laws barring discrimination against persons with disabilities. The suit seeks sweeping changes in the way that those inmates are treated at the ACI.
The lawsuit caps years of investigation by DRRI into RIDOC’s harmful and inhumane practice of subjecting prisoners with mental illness to solitary confinement for up to 24 hours a day for months, and even years. The 58-page complaint describes in great detail the harm that the six named inmate plaintiffs and others at the ACI – both sentenced prisoners and pretrial detainees – experience due to the conditions of their confinement.
“People who have loved ones with mental health problems incarcerated at the ACI should know that they are sometimes placed in ‘segregation’ or extreme isolation,” said Liberty in a statement. “If someone has a mental illness, I strongly believe it is not right to discipline them by placing them in extreme isolation. As a person with mental illness, 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. There is nothing positive – only feeling less than human, depressed, unworthy, seeing things on the wall, talking to yourself and wanting to kill yourself. My story was a bad one. I am hoping that in the future things will change in the Department of Corrections.”
The lawsuit alleges that RIDOC “subject[s] hundreds of people to prolonged solitary confinement in tiny, frequently filthy cells where they are kept locked down for 22 to 24 hours a day for weeks, months, and even years at a time. While in solitary confinement, these men and women have little human contact or access to exercise, fresh air and sunlight, or other environmental stimulation…
“Defendants, by statewide policy and practice of isolating people with SPMI in these inhumane conditions, subject individuals to serious psychological harm and increasingly acute symptoms,” continues the lawsuit. “Many individuals are already experiencing perceptible harm, including increased symptoms of anxiety, depression, social withdrawal, paranoia, agitation, and suicidal ideation. Defendants deny or ignore individuals’ administrative grievances and written requests to be removed from solitary confinement due to the harm they are experiencing in such conditions.”
The allegations in the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Rhode Island, echo concerns that the ACLU and DRRI formally raised in a letter to RIDOC director Patricia Coyne-Fague back in February. The lawsuit seeks a judicial finding that the defendants have violated the inmates’ constitutional and statutory rights, and a permanent injunction against RIDOC placing prisoners with SPMI in solitary confinement. The suit also seeks comprehensive remedies for the inhumane conditions faced by inmates with SPMI, including the appointment of independent experts to oversee improvements in their housing and to assist in the design and implementation of alternatives to solitary confinement.
A legislative commission led by former State Representative Aaron Regunburg reported critically on the state’s practice of placing SPMI inmates in solitary confinement. In response, RIDOC set up a Residential Treatment Unit as an alternative. But the lawsuit notes that, despite the scores of individuals with SPMI in solitary confinement on any given day, the unit has the capacity to enroll only eight men at a time. The suit also points out that no such unit has been set up at all for women inmates.
“I am so grateful the RI-ACLU and Disability Rights RI are filing this lawsuit against the horrendous use of solitary confinement in our state prison system,” wrote Regunberg in a statement. “In 2016 I introduced legislation to abolish solitary confinement in RI, and the next year led a legislative study commission with these organizations to highlight the inhumanity and harm caused by RIDOC’s solitary policies and share testimony from current and former inmates about the devastating mental health damage they cause. But this process – and the resistance to change we faced – made clear to me that legal action was an absolute necessity to achieve systemic change on this issue.
“I am so glad advocates are pushing forward,” concluded Regunberg. “I hope the findings and analysis from our 2017 commission will be helpful to the suit’s case, and pray this de facto torture will be ended in our state.”
There are six plaintiffs named in the suit:
Charlene Liberty is a 36-year-old woman diagnosed with SPMI by RIDOC, and who has a history of depression, head injury, substance use disorder, learning disabilities, and childhood trauma. The conditions in solitary confinement have driven Liberty to engage in serious self- injurious behaviors, including multiple suicide attempts. Exacerbating her mental health problems, Defendants have also pepper sprayed Liberty as a result of these self-injurious behaviors while in solitary, and have placed her in leg shackles and belly chains. She has been sanctioned with solitary confinement for attempting suicide.
John DaPonte is a 51-year-old man with a diagnosis of SPMI and epilepsy from RIDOC. As a result of disciplinary sanctions, he was given a sentence of 365 days in solitary in August 2017, and then kept in solitary under the rubric of “administrative confinement.” While in solitary, he experiences increased symptoms and greater difficulties managing his mental illness and is unable to access either adequate mental health care, including individualized therapy, or the art classes he finds therapeutic.
John Davis is a 46-year-old man with a history of psychosis and a diagnosis of SPMI from RIDOC. During his incarceration, Defendants have repeatedly placed Davis in solitary confinement where he experiences auditory and visual hallucinations, as well as suicidal ideation due to the conditions of confinement.
Duane Gomes is a 24-year-old man diagnosed with SPMI by RIDOC, and who has a history of learning disabilities and mental health hospitalization in the community. When Gomes was held pre-trial at the Intake Service Center, he was placed in solitary confinement as a result of incurring over 190 days of disciplinary sanctions. After he was moved to the Maximum Security facility, he continued to be placed in solitary, having accumulated over two years of disciplinary sanctions for multiple behavioral issues related to his mental illness.
Adam Hanrahan is a 34-year-old man diagnosed with SPMI by RIDOC and a recent history of cancer. He has a history of suicide attempts, auditory hallucinations, and paranoia. He has engaged in self-injurious behavior for which he was placed in solitary, and has experienced hallucinations and depression when so confined.
Charles Kenner is a 26-year-old man with a history of treatment for SPMI both as a child and in RIDOC. Defendants prescribe him anti-depressants and anti-psychotic medications. Since 2013, he has been subjected to significant amounts of time in solitary confinement, including sanctions to over 365 days of disciplinary confinement for multiple infractions. While in solitary confinement, he experiences heightened mental health symptoms, including greater difficulties controlling his behavior and suicidal ideation.
“The state’s use of solitary confinement is unconstitutional, plain and simple,” said ACLU of Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown. “Decades of research and experience tell us that it damages people, sometimes irreversibly, especially if they have mental illness. It’s time to stop this cruel practice in Rhode Island.”
“As somebody who has litigated these cases, I am all too aware of the incredible harm that solitary confinement can inflict on individuals, and particularly on those with mental disabilities who often end up receiving this punishment because of their disabilities,” said James Rollins, cooperating attorney for the ACLU-RI and partner at Nelson, Mullins, Riley & Scarborough, LLP. “I am hopeful that this lawsuit will move Rhode Island forward in eliminating this harsh, inhumane and ultimately counter-productive practice.”
“All around the country, we’re seeing states turn their back on long-term solitary confinement, which we know amounts to torture and is completely detrimental for the rehabilitation process,” said Amy Fettig, Deputy Director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “This is especially true for patients with mental illness. The overwhelming majority of these people will return to their communities, and the way we treat them in prison has long-lasting implications – not only for their own well-being, but for their families and communities as well. What we’re seeing in Rhode Island is unacceptable and unconstitutional, and we will fight to see them bring their system up to legal and moral standards.”
“Human beings who are seriously mentally ill, and oftentimes incarcerated for actions arising from such illness, are then subjected, for infractions arising from their mental illness, to the deliberately harmful policy of enforced solitary isolation, removal from any regular human contact, in filthy conditions, with little to no access to even fresh air,” said Morna Murray, Executive Director of DRRI. “There is absolutely no remedial value to this practice whatsoever; it is inhumane and unconscionable.”
“I have seen people convicted of even the most serious crimes go on to become respected and contributing members of society, when they embraced recovery,” said Charles Feldman, Deputy Executive Director of The Oasis Wellness and Recovery Centers of Rhode Island. “People with mental illness need support and treatment to recover, and not solitary, which leads to a downward spiral of worsening symptoms and even suicide. The motto of Oasis is: Recovery is Real! We have seen it work, and we see the need to expand it to all those living with major mental illness.”
Questions from the press:
Attorney Anne Mulready representing DRRI:
Attorney Brian Adae representing DRRI:
Information about the organizations involved in the lawsuit:
DRRI, as the designated Protection and Advocacy (P&A) agency for the state of Rhode Island is both a plaintiff, on behalf of its constituents, and one of the counsel for plaintiffs in this action. P&A agencies are created pursuant to federal laws designed to protect individuals with mental health, developmental, and other disabilities.
The ACLU National Prison Project is dedicated to ensuring that the nation’s prisons, jails, and other places of detention comply with the Constitution, domestic law, and international human rights principles, and to ending the policies that have given the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world. Beginning in 1976, the Project successfully litigated a 30-plus year lawsuit challenging unconstitutional conditions at the ACI.
The Boston law firm of Nelson, Mullins, Riley & Scarborough, LLP, whose lawyers are serving as volunteer attorneys for the ACLU of Rhode Island, has been involved in systematic challenges to other states’ “solitary confinement” practices.
Over its six decades, the ACLU of Rhode Island has sponsored numerous lawsuits challenging violations of prisoners’ rights and unconstitutional conditions at the ACI, including an emergency lawsuit filed this past winter over RIDOC’s failure to provide adequate heat to some inmates for more than a month and a half.
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