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Long-Term Segregation Can Establish Imminent Danger of Serious Physical Injury for PLRA Purposes

by Christopher Zoukis

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a mentally ill prisoner who spent 11 years in solitary confinement and had a history of attempted self-harm could plausibly allege that continued segregation would place him in imminent danger of serious physical injury. The ruling overturned a district court’s order to the contrary, and the case was allowed to proceed.

Maurice L. Wallace, serving life without parole, attacked a guard in 2006. He was placed in solitary confinement, where he continued to remain 11 years later. Wallace is seriously mentally ill and during his time in solitary has been litigious.

The appeal under review by the Seventh Circuit involved allegations that prolonged isolation exacerbated Wallace’s mental illness, increased his risk of suicide and violated his rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Because Wallace asked for leave to proceed in forma pauperis, the district court reviewed his litigation history for compliance with the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g).

The PLRA’s “three strikes” provision prohibits a prisoner from proceeding with a civil action in forma pauperis when, on three or more previous occasions, a federal court has dismissed a lawsuit or appeal brought by the prisoner on the grounds that it was frivolous, malicious or failed to state a claim. The only exception to this rule is when the prisoner is “under imminent danger of serious physical injury.”

The district court found that Wallace had three PLRA strikes and was not in imminent danger of serious physical injury. He appealed and the Seventh Circuit appointed counsel, heard arguments and reversed the lower court on July 9, 2018.

Wallace argued that his 11 years in solitary confinement, combined with his mental illness and five prior suicide attempts, established imminent danger of serious physical injury. The district court had determined that Wallace’s argument failed because “a prisoner cannot create the imminent danger required by § 1915(g).” The appellate court disagreed, as Wallace had not created his own mental illness and then chose to spend 11 years in a situation “akin to being sealed inside a coffin,” where his mental health worsened and ultimately led to multiple suicide attempts.

“We recognize the common-sense appeal of that general rule, at least to the extent it is based on truly, voluntary actions by the prisoner,” the Seventh Circuit wrote. “In the case, however, of someone suffering from mental illness that inclines him toward self-harm – a condition that is unfortunately common in American prisons – that general rule sweeps too broadly. It does not account for genuine dangers beyond the conscious control of these prisoners.”

The Court of Appeals ultimately concluded that Wallace had made a sufficient showing that he faced imminent danger, and that he should be allowed to proceed with his suit in forma pauperis. The Court also found he did not have three PLRA strikes but only two, as a case in which he had moved to intervene did not count. As such, the district court’s order was vacated and the case remanded, where it remains pending. See: Wallace v. Baldwin, 895 F.3d 481 (7th Cir. 2018). 


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Related legal case

Wallace v. Baldwin