Landmark Settlement in Lawsuit Challenging Solitary Confinement in Delaware
by Christopher Zoukis
A game-changing settlement has been reached in a federal lawsuit over the treatment of prisoners held in solitary confinement in Delaware state prisons.
The suit, filed on August 6, 2015 by the Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. (CLASI), with representation by the ACLU of Delaware and the law firm of Pepper Hamilton, LLP, alleged that the Delaware Department of Correction had violated the Eighth Amendment by housing mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement and failing to address the serious mental health needs of those prisoners.
The case settled on September 1, 2016, with state prison officials agreeing to make sweeping changes to virtually every aspect of solitary confinement. The Delaware DOC also agreed that the district court would retain jurisdiction for five years while CLASI monitored compliance with the terms of the settlement.
“I am thrilled that we have been able to achieve a comprehensive settlement that for all intents and purposes ends solitary confinement of individuals with mental illness as we know it,” said Dan Atkins, executive director of CLASI. “The settlement agreement guarantees treatment and time out of cell and dramatically changes the conditions of confinement for individuals who previously had been left alone in their cells for 24 hours a day most days of the week.”
Pursuant to the settlement agreement, prisoners held in “restrictive housing” (formerly solitary confinement) for non-disciplinary reasons, including protective custody, will receive 17.5 hours of unstructured recreation per week. Those held in restrictive housing for disciplinary reasons will receive five hours of recreation each week.
The agreement further changes Delaware DOC policy such that no prisoner may serve a disciplinary sanction of more than 15 consecutive days in segregation for any single rule violation or series of related rule violations. Additionally, there must be a break of at least 15 days between disciplinary sanctions that include solitary confinement.
Significant improvements in the treatment of prisoners with mental illness are included in the settlement. Staffing and services for prisoners who need mental health care will be greatly expanded, and a prisoner’s mental health will be considered prior to his or her placement in disciplinary restrictive housing. Prison staff, including guards, will receive training in how to work with prisoners who are mentally ill, and more programming and treatment options will be developed for mentally ill prisoners.
“The DOC’s commitment to this change is a reflection of the parties listening to the experts about what makes sense from both penological and rehabilitative interests,” said Atkins.
The improvements being applied to the use of solitary confinement in Delaware are historic. It is unfortunate that it took a federal lawsuit to convince state prison officials to stop using close observation cells without toilets and to provide toilet paper in cells that have toilets (two of the provisions of the settlement agreement), but progress is progress.
Rich Morse, the ACLU of Delaware’s legal director, echoed that sentiment.
“The many changes Commissioner [Robert] Coupe and DOC have voluntarily agreed to will produce safer, more humane and more effective prisons. That is important in every state, but especially in Delaware, which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. We are gratified that DOC has agreed to these progressive changes, and are hopeful that even more progress will be realized as Delaware moves forward.”
As part of the settlement the state agreed to pay $500,000 for CLASI’s attorney fees and costs. See: Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. v. Coupe, U.S.D.C. (D. Del.), Case No. 1:15-cv-00688-GMS.
Additional source: www.declasi.org
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Related legal case
Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. v. Coupe
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (D. Del.), Case No. 1:15-cv-00688-GMS|