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Federal Judge Springs Former PLN Editor from “Iron Man” Pretrial Detention Cell

by Casey J. Bastian

Saying the unduly harsh confinement conditions he’d endured for nearly two years—without ever being convicted of a crime—likely violate the Fourteenth Amendment, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee on November 23, 2021, granted a request for injunctive relief made by former PLN Managing Editor Alex Friedmann.

“The totality of the circumstances demonstrates Mr. Friedmann is suffering unconstitutional pretrial punishment because his solitary confinement is excessive in relation to its purposes,” wrote Chief Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw, Jr.

Friedmann’s employment ended at PLN in February 2020 when he was charged with vandalizing a detention center being constructed for the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office (DCSO) in Nashville. But this was no mere window-breaking, charging documents alleged, saying Friedmann “masquerad[ed] as a construction worker” to enter the building site in an effort to secret firearms and other material within the unfinished structure.
He was taken into custody by DCSO, which then got the Davidson County Criminal Court to transfer Friedmann to the custody of the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) under an 1858 “safe-keeper” law that permits a defendant to be placed in the state’s custody if the local jail is deemed “insufficient” to accommodate him or her.

In turn, TDOC placed Friedmann in its Riverbend Maximum Security Institution (RMSI) on February 19, 2020. There he was assigned to Unit One, the prison’s most restrictive area, which consists of 96 cells in which detainees are held in 23-hour-a-day confinement on weekdays and 24-hour isolation on holidays and weekends.

As outlined in a lawsuit he filed under 42 USC §1983, Friedmann was not just subjected to the very restrictive conditions of Unit One, which include limited commissary and non-contact visits. He was also immediately placed in one of RMSI’s two most-restrictive cells, referred to as “iron man” cells.

These cells have walls and a ceiling made of welded steel plates and “contain only a steel-plate bench for a bed; a steel combination sink and toilet; a shower head mounted on one wall and a drain in the floor,” according to Friedmann’s complaint. The cells are utterly barren and psychologically devastating, he argued, especially given that he has not yet been convicted of any crime.

To make the environment worse, the iron-man cells are darker because the two-inch vertical slit windows are painted dark gray, and much colder than regular cells because the “steel plates absorb and retain cold temperatures...particularly during the winter months.”

By the time he filed his complaint on September 21, 2021, Friedmann had spent 580 days in this punitive environment meant only for the most recalcitrant prisoners in TDOC custody. The only other inmate confined to an “iron-man” cell longer was Curtis Ray Watson, “a convicted TDOC prisoner accused of sexually assaulting and murdering TDOC administrator Debra Johnson after his escape from a state prison in August 2019,” the complaint notes. [See: PLN, Jan. 2020, p. 26]

Even RMSI’s death-row prisoners, who are held in the prison’s Unit Two, are provided more comfortable housing than Friedmann received, he said. Yet Friedmann—who’s “good behavior” would normally mean he’d be classified by TDOC as a minimum-level security risk, according to Giniva Douglas, who classifies prisoners for housing in the prison system—was instead allowed to interact with other prisoners only for a total of 21 days—14 of which were spent in regular segregation due to a COVID-19 quarantine.

As a result, Friedmann alleged in his complaint, he suffered psychological and physical injuries including: “depression, stress, anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, memory loss, loss of concentration” and “weight loss; back problems from sleeping on the steel-plated bed; and eye strain, blurred vision, and headaches from the poor lighting in his cell.”

Based on these factual allegations, the extensive evidence submitted, and in light of Friedmann’s status as a pretrial detainee, Judge Crenshaw agreed that an injunction was warranted. TDOC Commissioner Tony Parker and RMSI Warden Tony Mays, among other prison system employees named as defendants, were temporarily enjoined from keeping Friedmann in isolation and ordered to place him in less restrictive housing at RMSI.
As noted in the ruling, courts are required to consider four factors when a preliminary injunction is requested, since it is normally an “extraordinary remedy.” Unfortunately, Friedmann’s circumstances had been extraordinary for far too long.

The first consideration is whether Friedmann will likely succeed on the merits of his complaint. The Court found that he likely would prevail, as the alleged conditions of his confinement violate his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights. Pretrial detainees are protected from “being punished prior to an adjudication of guilt” as held by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bell v. Wolfish, 441 US 520 (1979).

Second, Friedmann’s restrictive confinement was not rationally related to any governmental objective put forth by the defendants and was excessive to those purposes as well, the Court continued. Examining the totality of the circumstances of Friedmann’s confinement, the Court found them excessive both to maintaining prison security and to ensuring Friedmann’s presence at trial, on top of being excessively harsh—because Friedmann was denied intellectual stimulation and human contact, which constituted punishment.

Third, the Court found that the duration of Friedmann’s isolation was itself excessive. His behavioral record did not warrant keeping him in an iron-man cell so long, and the punishment rarely persists for others, with the Court finding that “most inmates are housed (in iron-man cells) for a short time, either a few days or up to 2-3 weeks.” The evidence tied other iron-man cell assignments to disciplinary problems, something Friedmann’s record clearly lacked. Further, TDOC could ensure Friedmann’s presence at trial, and RMSI’s security and safety, without such punitive conditions, the Court noted, dryly pointing out that both could be ensured by “loading a detainee with chains and shackles and throwing him in a dungeon” except the constitution does not permit such treatment.

The defendants argued that Friedmann was unlikely to succeed on the merits of his claim because TDOC officials are allotted broad discretion in implementing prison policies. While the Court agreed that this premise is usually true, “prison officials do not set constitutional standards by fiat” and “are not afforded unbridled discretion” to create excessively punitive pretrial conditions of confinement. Despite the deference owed to prison officials, the security concerns advanced by the defendants simply failed to support their position, the Court said.

The defendants also argued that Friedmann did not advance an Eighth Amendment claim and “a pretrial detainee’s due process claim concerning conditions-of-confinement” is analyzed the same as the claim of a prisoner. The Court disagreed, finding that the “Court of Appeals properly relied on the (Fourteenth Amendment’s) Due Process Clause rather than the Eighth Amendment in considering the claims of pretrial detainees.” The unconvicted status of the person is a significant issue in matters such as Friedmann’s because pretrial detainees have a right to be free of punitive conditions regardless of whether those conditions are sufficiently “cruel and unusual” to violate the Eighth Amendment. Not so with convicted prisoners who may be subjected to punitive conditions.

The Court addressed two additional defenses raised. First, Friedman’s “safekeeping” under the local court order placing him in TDOC’s custody did not warrant isolation; he was remanded to the custody of TDOC, not to punitive pretrial confinement, the Court said. Second, while 42 USC §1997e(e) is a “limitation of recovery”—which precludes actions based on mental or emotional injuries absent an accompanying physical injury or the commission of a sexual act—it does not stop a complainant from obtaining injunctive relief because the section only applies to monetary damages. In any event, the Court found, the injuries described by Friedmann in his complaint were both physical and psychological, rendering the defense moot. As the Court noted, some juries have found injury based on weight loss alone, and that was only one of the injuries described by Friedmann in his complaint.

Finally, the Court addressed the most important factor, and that is whether Friedmann faced “irreparable harm” absent the injunction. While allowing that “the physical and mental harms Mr. Friedmann faces in solitary confinement are not irreparable,” the Court pointed to other cases in which injunctive relief was granted after it was determined that “the harm suffered in solitary confinement is not harm easily undone.”
Wrapping up its analysis, the Court found that any injunction would not cause substantial harm to others, particularly RMSI staff—as defendants alleged—and that public interest would also favor the injunction. It’s “always in the public interest to prevent the violation of a party’s constitutional rights,” the Court concluded.

Due to the nature of Friedmann’s complaint, he was not required to “post a security in connection with this injunction based on the constitutional rights at issue and the public interest in upholding those rights,” the Court added. It ordered the defendants to house Friedmann in conditions that “comply with his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.”

But in reality, that meant he was placed in a “close custody” unit where he had about 90 minutes a day to interact with other prisoners in a day room, and the only visitor allowed was his wife. His purchases at the commissary were also restricted.

After 17 days of this foot-dragging by TDOC, Friedmann returned to the Court on December 10, 2021, asking for a contempt order against TDOC. At a four-hour hearing before Judge Crenshaw on December 15, 2021, Friedmann hammered out an agreement with TDOC Interim Commissioner Lisa Helton and RMSI Warden Hays that will allow him out of his cell four to six hours every weekday for some sort of prison work, grant him visitors other than his wife and free him to purchase the same commissary items allowed to the prison’s general population. See: Friedmann v. Parker, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 225886.

Additional sources: AP News, Nashville Tennessean, New Haven Register

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Related legal case

Friedmann v. Parker