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Thirty-Nine Year Stay in Solitary Requires Procedural Safeguards; 5th Circuit Affirms Denial of Qualified Immunity

On December 17, 2014, the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the ruling of a Louisiana federal district court judge denying qualified immunity to prison officials in a lawsuit filed by a prisoner who had been in solitary confinement for the past 39 years.

Albert Woodfox was first placed in segregation at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in 1972 after being suspected of killing a guard, a crime for which Woodfox and his co-plaintiff Herman Wallace were later convicted. In 2000 Woodfox filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against various prison officials, arguing that his then-28+ years in solitary violated his rights under the First, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Woodfox also sought an injunction ordering that he be housed in general population.

Angola prison officials moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity grounds. The district court denied the motion, holding that the extraordinary duration of segregation gave rise to a protected liberty interest and that genuine issues of material fact regarding the due process provided precluded summary judgment. After several appeals by the state were denied, Woodfox was transferred to another prison (Wade) in 2010, and remained in segregation there. In 2013, Woodfox amended his complaint to include Wade prison officials. Wade moved for summary judgment, relying on qualified immunity and the fact that Woodfox's placement in Wade's segregation unit "reset" the clock on Woodfox's time in solitary and thus his claim should be evaluated as if he had been in segregation for just three years.

The district court, however, rejected that contention and denied Wade's motion. In support of its ruling, the district court held, and the Fifth Circuit agreed, that the reason for Woodfox's segregation has never changed since 1972, and thus the clock cannot be "reset" simply by transferring him to a new prison.

On appeal, Wade and Angola officials had argued that by transferring Woodfox, Angola was essentially off the hook and the Wade defendants were insulated by the fact that they made "an independent initial classification" on Woodfox's placement.

The Fifth Circuit found that Wade had the benefit of the pending litigation to tailor what they reflected in the administrative record and "had every advantage to use certain labels over others."

In striking down the claims of qualified immunity, the appellate court focused on what amounts to a sliding scale, comparing the length of time in segregation versus the conditions of confinement. Noting that Woodfox's confinement in segregation was clearly the longest the court had ever encountered, "it is clear that Woodfox's continued detention in (solitary confinement] constitutes an 'atypical and significant hardship,' thus triggering the due process protections pursuant to Sandin v. Connor, 515 U.S. 472 (1995).

Upholding the denial of prison officials’ motion for summary judgment, the Fifth Circuit concluded that "prison officials may [not] avoid the established constitutional rights of prisoners by transferring them to a new facility and wiping the slate clean, while continuing all of the conditions the prisoner has challenged."

Having found the law clearly established, the court held that "no reasonable prison official could conclude that continuing four decades in indefinite solitary confinement would not implicate a liberty interest protected by due process," this affirming the denial of summary judgment based on qualified immunity. See Woodfox et al., v. Goodwin, et al., No. 13-31289 (5th Cir. 2014).


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Related legal case

Woodfox et al., v. Goodwin