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Final Settlement Entered in 1976 Class-Action Suit Against Florida Jail

by Scott Grammer

In August 1976, a lawsuit was filed in a Florida federal district court alleging numerous constitutional violations at the Broward County jail, including overcrowding. Two years later the case was certified as a class action. It took until 1994 for a consent decree to be reached, then in 1996 the sheriff and the county unsuccessfully moved to terminate the decree. In 2001, the Cloney & Malloy law firm, counsel for the class members, asked the ACLU’s National Prison Project (NPP) to join as co-counsel, which it did. The district court then appointed expert witness Stephen J. Martin to review conditions at the Broward County jail.

Martin, along with Steven S. Spencer, M.D. and Jeffrey L. Metzner, M.D., inspected the facility three times though 2004, then issued reports. That year, the parties entered into two stipulations for settlement which dismissed the medical claims in the suit and reduced the oversight, inspection and monitoring of the jail to operations and conditions related to mental health services; the safety, security and discipline of prisoners; rules applying to prisoners; and prisoner access to religious publications and services as well as legal materials. The stipulations also provided that Martin and Dr. Metzner would continue to report on conditions and operations at the jail though mid-2006.

In 2010, the Broward County jail was once again substantially overcrowded. The district court appointed James Austin, Ph.D., as its population management expert. In November 2014, jail detainees Greg Jones and Renand Fleuridor filed separate pro se motions claiming violations of the consent decree. After the sheriff and the county answered the motions, a joint status report was filed in response to the court’s order requiring an update on efforts to resolve the violations.

On August 5, 2015, the district court issued a sua sponte order that the parties show cause why the original consent decree should not be dissolved or modified. A hearing was held in late March 2016 regarding dissolution of the decree, and status reports and an evidentiary hearing were scheduled. 

On December 1, 2016, another settlement was reached by the parties and approved by the court. Kathryn Burns, M.D., MPH and Michael A. Berg were appointed as experts in mental health care and jail conditions. More reports were filed regarding violations at the jail. After further negotiations, all claims in the case other than those related to mental health care were dismissed by stipulation.

A joint motion for preliminary approval of the settlement was filed with the court on August 9, 2018; the terms of the agreement resolved the mental health claims in the suit, which were all that remained after more than 40 years of legal wrangling. According to the joint motion, “The Agreement details changes to and/or maintenance of the jail’s policies and procedures to provide prisoners with quality and accessible mental health care. It includes provisions to ensure that intake screening and assessments are timely and effective at identifying mental health conditions. The Settlement also requires that prisoners placed on the mental health caseload be given individualized treatment plans, and it establishes procedures for diverting prisoners to a hospital or psychiatric facility when more specific treatment is needed.... [T]he jail will implement an electronic medical record in order to better track and provide for prisoners in need of mental health care. The jail will also create systems so that all prisoners whose mental health needs require assessment or treatment are referred to providers and timely seen according to clinical need.”

Other stipulations in the settlement agreement address changes in mental health treatment at the jail, including: 1) Mental health assessments must occur outside of prisoners’ cells to ensure privacy, even if the prisoner is in segregation. If this does not happen, a legitimate safety, security or treatment rationale must be documented. 2) Mentally ill prisoners must not be punished for behavior that is a consequence of their illness. 3) Any prisoner placed in segregation must be assessed within 24 hours. 4) Involuntary treatments, such as use of restraints, seclusion and forced medication, will only be administered to prisoners who pose a danger to themselves or others, and only after all reasonable alternatives have failed, and then only under conditions that ensure the prisoners’ health and safety. 5) The jail must maintain sufficient numbers of security and mental health staff to meet the needs of the facility’s population. 6) The jail will maintain a Quality Improvement (QI) system to identify and correct deficiencies in mental health services, including QI studies to assess compliance with all mental health policies. 7) Dr. Burns will assess compliance with the terms of the settlement and issue reports every six months. 

The district court entered an order approving the final settlement on April 12, 2019, which resulted in the termination of the prior consent decree. The court also awarded $757,840 in attorney fees and $41,327.54 in costs to the NPP, plus $316.81 to cover expenses incurred by the ACLU of Florida. See: Carruthers v. Israel, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Fla.), Case No. 0:76-cv-06086-DMM. 

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Related legal case

Carruthers v. Israel