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Court Grants Class Certification for Illinois Prisoners in Restrictive Housing Lawsuit

by Keith Sanders

On June 14, 2021, United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois granted Plaintiffs’ motion for class certification while granting in part and denying in part Defendant’s motion to Supplement.

The Plaintiffs, six prisoners housed in restrictive housing at different facilities in the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), filed a federal complaint on June 2, 2016 against IDOC’s “use of segregation, which they claim is tantamount to ‘extreme isolation,’ violates constitutional standards.” The Plaintiffs alleged two counts: one, the conditions in IDOC restrictive housing violates the Eighth Amendment; and two, they have a “protected liberty interest in avoiding extreme isolation.”

Subsequently, the Plaintiffs filed a motion for class certification on September 6, 2019. The Defendant filed his motion to supplement authority and/or evidence. Plaintiffs originally sued John Baldwin, then Acting Director of the IDOC, but who was replaced by Rob Jeffreys, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 25(d) that automatically substitutes Jeffreys as a party.

The Court first addressed the Defendant’s motion to supplement additional authority. The Defendant submitted as additional authority opinions issued by the Seventh Circuit, McFields v. Dart, 982 F.3d 51 1 (7th Cir. 2020) and Howard v. Cook County Sheriff’s Office, 989 F.3d 587 (7th Cir. 2021). The Court, however, ruled those opinions did not constitute a new authority “that changes the law governing Plaintiffs’ class action.”

Nevertheless, because the Plaintiffs had previously submitted supplemental authority on “notice”—i.e., submitting their motion without first asking the Court’s permission—the Court allowed the Defendant to supplement the record with their motion, noting wryly that “what is good for the goose is good for the gander.”

Next, the Court denied the Defendants supplement for additional evidence. The Defendant provided updated restrictive housing policies, which were implemented October 2020, contending the policies “contributed to a sharp decrease in the numbers of segregated prisoners.” The Court responded that the Defendant did not provide any linkage between the updated policies and reduced numbers of prisoners in restrictive housing, and declined to review the 17 pages of policy updates to deduce the claims of cause and effect. Notably, the Court observed that less people in segregation did not defeat class certification.

The Court’s ruling then turned to the Plaintiffs’ motion for certification. Both parties submitted close to 100 exhibits, including internal documents and records from the IDOC, depositions from IDOC officials, and testimony from two expert witnesses, Dr. Craig Haney and Mr. Eldon Vail, retained by the Plaintiffs, comprising over 2,000 pages.

The Plaintiffs’ experts summarized how extreme isolation can negatively affect an individual. Dr. Haney, a professor of psychology from University of California, Santa Cruz, provided information and opinion on the adverse psychological consequences of solitary confinement. According to the professor, restrictive housing deprives people of “meaningful social contact” that commonly produces a “host of serious adverse cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and physical impairments, which can cause permanent and irreparable damage to a person’s overall psychology and physical functioning.”

The Plaintiffs’ other expert, Mr. Vail, a former administrator in corrections with 35 years of experience, evaluated the IDOC’s policies and practices regarding restrictive housing to offer an opinion on suggested reforms. Mr. Vail pointed out that “most states” impose restrictive housing or segregation for disciplinary reasons and for only 30, 60, or 90 days. But the IDOC, according to Mr. Vail, uses “segregation to punish offenses that did not require it.”

The latest publicly available data from 2018 shows that of the 1,619 people in IDOC restrictive housing, 44% had been there for two or more years, 24% for five or more years, 16% for seven or more years, and 5% for at least ten years. Disturbingly, the data also revealed that 11 individuals had been closeted inside restrictive housing for 20 years or longer.

The Defendant, the Court noted on two occasions, did not provide any experts to contest and rebut the information submitted by Dr. Haney and Mr. Vail.

Regarding the requirements for class certification, Plaintiffs had to satisfy numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation, the four requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(a).

The Court first addressed the Defendant’s argument that the Plaintiffs’ class certification should not be granted because the issues raised are “subsumed” by another class action in the Central District of Illinois: Rasho v. Walker, No. 07-1298, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 235990 (C.D. Ill. Oct. 30, 2018). The Court rejected the Defendant’s argument. The Rasho suit, though having some overlap with the Plaintiffs’ case, “did not ask, litigate, or resolve whether the IDOC’s policies and/or the purported systemic failure to adhere to those policies, creates inhumane conditions of confinement in restrictive housing for inmates.”

The Court also noted that the argument came too late in the proceedings, adding that the Defendant waited until after Plaintiffs had filed for class certification. “The timing and imprecision of Defendant’s argument suggests it is more likely a last-ditch effort to avoid class certification,” the Court observed.

Next, the Court addressed the four requirements. The Defendant’s claim the Plaintiffs do not satisfy numerosity rested on the argument that the Rasho prisoners should be excluded and that Plaintiffs are assuming that “every inmate who is currently serving time in restrictive housing or will in the future is a class member.”

The Court disagreed, pointing out the Plaintiffs are claiming the IDOC’s policies for restrictive housing put current and future prisoners at a “substantial risk of serious harm.” The Court found the Plaintiffs satisfied the requirement of numerosity.

Rule 23(a)’s second requirement of commonality must prove there are “questions of law or fact common to the class.”

Analyzing those questions requires a “precise understanding of the nature of the plaintiffs’ claims.” Phillips v. Sheriff of Cook Cty., 828 F.3d 541 550, 553 (7th Cir. 2016). The Constitution does not prohibit uncomfortable prison conditions, only if they are inhumane. If those conditions deprive prisoners of “basic human needs” or “the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities,” then the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment is violated.

Moreover, commonality is satisfied when “inmates provide sufficient evidence of systemic and centralized policies or practices in a prison system that allegedly expose all inmates in that system to a substantial risk of serious future harm.” Parsons v. Ryan, 754 F.3d 657, 684 (9th Cir. 2014).

The Court, without opining on the merits of the Plaintiffs’ claims, established that Plaintiffs showed enough evidence to significantly prove their burden that common questions exist.

The Plaintiffs also had to satisfy commonality for their due process claim by showing they were “deprived of a protected liberty interest and the procedures they were afforded were constitutionally deficient.” Lisle v. Welborn, 933 F.3d 705, 720, (7th Cir. 0019). The Court ruled they did, again pointing out the Plaintiffs’ claim addressed IDOC’s policies.

Because the Plaintiffs are also seeking relief under Rule 23(b)(2), they must satisfy another requirement. The Plaintiffs are not seeking monetary damages but injunctive and declaratory relief. Rule 23(b)(2) allows class certification where “the party opposing the class has acted or refused to act on grounds that apply generally to the class, so that final injunctive relief or corresponding declaratory relief is appropriate respecting the class as a whole.” Again, the Court noted the Plaintiffs are seeking to address “purported systemic defects”’ in IDOC’s policies and practices for restrictive housing and therefore found the Plaintiffs satisfied 23(b)(2).

The third requirement of Federal Rule 23(a) states that the “claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of, the c1aims or defenses of the class.” The Court disagreed with the Defendant’s claim the Plaintiffs were alleging factual differences among the Plaintiffs’ experiences in restrictive housing and ruled that Plaintiffs met the requirement of typicality because they “are challenging as a general matter where restrictive housing in the IDOC is cruel and unusual and where it is imposed without due process.”

Finally, the Court also determined Plaintiffs satisfied the fourth requirement of adequacy of representation. This rule provides that the “named plaintiffs and proposed class counsel must fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a)(4). In other words, a “class representative must be part of the class and must ‘possess the same interest and suffer the same injury’ as the other class members.” Orr v. Shicker, 953 F.3d 490, 499 (7th Cir. 2020). The Court noted that those currently in restrictive housing are “actively exposed to the purported due process violations and unconstitutional conditions of confinement” resulting from the “same system-wide policies and practices governing extreme isolation.”

The Plaintiffs are represented by Winston & Strawn LLP and the Uptown People’s Law Center. Alan Mills, co-lead counsel, said, “Illinois’ prison system locks up too many people, for too long, in horrific conditions. And as solitary confinement is prison within prison, it, too, is overused. The UN states that over 15 days of solitary is torture, yet sometimes people in Illinois spend decades there. And everyone who spends more than a couple of weeks ends up traumatized.” See: Davis v. Baldwin, USDC, SD IL, Case No. 3:16-cv-600-MAB. 

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