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Settlement Agreement Reached in Overcrowding Claim Against Florida Jail

Settlement Agreement Reached in Overcrowding Claim Against Florida Jail

The parties to a class action suit filed by prisoners at Florida’s St. Lucie County Jail (SLCJ) have reached a settlement. The civil rights complaint alleged constitutional violations caused by overcrowding, which resulted in limited access to medical treatment, improper screening for mental health issues, and trouble with plumbing, fire hazards, food service and security.

The class action was the fourth lawsuit brought due to overcrowding at SLCJ since 1980. One of the attorneys representing the class, Robert J. Wilson of Frierson & Watson, had acted as co-counsel in previous actions. Wilson stated in the class certification portion of the suit that he felt an “ethical obligation” to file the complaint.

Wilson acknowledged that provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act might make it difficult for him to receive compensation, yet allegations regarding the lack of medical care for prisoners like Willie Mae Hampton caused him to proceed. Hampton, a sickle cell patient, developed tumors on the back of her head and neck; she received no medical care at SLCJ despite suffering deterioration in her eyesight, which caused her to experience difficulty walking.

Further, mental health treatment was at issue due to a lack of screening of SLCJ prisoners with mental health disorders. Hampton watched one prisoner with obvious mental problems attempt suicide by jumping from the second floor of a two-story “pod.” The prisoner survived, but suffered a broken pelvis and other serious injuries.

With the exception of 2002, the SLCJ exceeded the Fire Marshal’s maximum occupancy limits every year since 1992. In 2006 the jail’s maximum occupancy was exceeded by hundreds of prisoners daily. The fire hazard created by this gross level of overpopulation endangered both prisoners and jail staff.

A lack of space to store food to feed the prisoner population resulted in problems with providing fresh food, and prevented hot meals from being delivered. Overcrowding caused by cramming 1,300 prisoners into a jail designed to hold 1,050 led to insufficient space for visitation, prevented adequate recreation for prisoners, curtailed access to legal materials to the point it deprived access, and caused the plumbing system to be overtaxed, according to the suit. The plumbing problem caused sewage to back up into the jail.

Finally, security problems exacerbated by too many people in too small an area created a “danger of violence.” The lawsuit was filed in February 2006 in state court, but later removed to federal court. SLCJ has since opened two newly-constructed pods at the jail, putting the facility about 20 prisoners under capacity.

The November 2007 settlement agreement requires St. Lucie County to undertake “a feasibility study on the expansion of the medical facility” in the jail. The study must be completed by September 30, 2008, and the Board of Commissioners will then vote as to what, if any, actions should be taken based on the study’s findings. The settlement did not include payment of the plaintiffs’ attorney fees. See: Strong v. Coward, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Fla.), Case No. 2:06-cv-14077-JEM.

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Related legal case

Strong v. Coward