Tenth Circuit: Mentally Ill Prisoners Have No Clearly Established Right to Be Kept Out of Solitary Confinement
by Jacob Barrett
On October 21, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a complaint filed by the estate of a mentally ill and intellectually disabled prisoner who committed suicide while held by the Utah Department of Corrections (DOC).
The deceased, Brock Tucker, was a seventeen-year-old youth offender when he was imprisoned at the Central Utah Correctional Facility (CUCF) in August 2012 for a term of two to five years. His incarceration followed a childhood marred by abuse and tragedy, including a near-fatal accident that left him severely brain-damaged and with an impulse control disorder.
At CUCF, Tucker endured long periods of “punitive isolation” for various non-violent infractions. During these he was kept “isolated in his cell except for, at most, one hour every other day to shower,” the Court noted. He was also denied access to recreation, exercise equipment, the library, visitation, phone calls and the commissary. In the year before February 2014, Tucker spent more than 154 days in punitive isolation.
On September 19, 2014, guard Don Taylor sentenced Tucker at a disciplinary hearing to two consecutive 20-day periods of punitive isolation for having a new tattoo, making verbal threats to staff, and opening another prisoner’s door and splashing him with liquid.
Taylor levied this punishment without consulting mental health staff, in apparent violation of CUCF Policy FD18/12.03, which provides “[w]hen disciplinary action is being considered for an offender in outpatient treatment, the psychiatrist mental health staff shall provide information to the discipline hearing officer stating whether or not the behavior was due to mental illness.”
Three days later, Tucker received two new disciplinary notices, meaning his time in punitive isolation would likely be extended. Another guard named Cox (first name unknown), argued with Tucker through his cell door on October 14, 2014, refusing to allow the prisoner to leave his isolation cell for exercise that day. Cox was also seen entering Tucker’s cell by himself, in violation of prison policy. Shortly afterward, Tucker placed a towel over his cell door window.
Later that evening, a guard distributing medication discovered Tucker dead, hanging from the top of bunk his bed in his isolation cell.
His grandmother, Janet Crane, filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in Utah state court on behalf of Tucker’s estate. Defendant prison officials removed the suit to the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada in October 2016. They then moved for judgment on the pleadings. In February 2020, the district court granted the motion, holding that Defendants were entitled to qualified immunity on the federal constitutional claims and that the federal statutory claims did not survive Tucker’s death. The district court also declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the suit’s state claims.
Crane appealed the dismissal to the Tenth Circuit, alleging Defendants subjected Tucker to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment and asserting that “putting the severely mentally ill in solitary confinement can constitute deliberate indifference to substantial harm.”
District Court cases lack necessary precedential weight
But the Court upheld the extension ofqualified immunity to Defendants, finding no clearly established right preventing them from putting severely mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement. In doing so, it rejected Crane’s argument, which relied on four cases: Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146 (N.D. Cal. 1995); Ruiz v. Johnson, 37 F. Supp. 2d 855 (S.D. Tex. 1999); Jones ’El v. Berge, 164 F. Supp. 2d 1096, 1125-26 (W.D. Wis. 2001); and Ind. Prot. & Advocacy Servs. Comm’n v. Comm’r, Ind. Dep’t of Corr., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 182974 (S.D. Ind.).
The Court agreed that the cases “stand for the proposition that isolating mentally ill inmates in conditions that seriously and predictably exacerbate their mental illness is cruel and unusual when the official has subjective knowledge of both the mental illness and the impact of isolation.”
But it concluded that the district court cases are not “capable of overcoming qualified immunity,” citing Camreta v. Greene, 563 U.S. 692 (2011), which held that “[d]istrict court cases lack the precedential weight necessary to clearly establish the law for qualified immunity purposes.”
Moreover, the Court noted, “Crane cites no on-point decisions from this circuit or the Supreme Court, nor decisions from any other circuit court, that hold punitive isolation of mentally ill inmates violates the Eighth Amendment in the absence of knowledge that a specific inmate is suicidal. Thus, the CUCF Defendants’ general use of punitive isolation to discipline prisoners who happen to be mentally ill does not violate clearly established law.”
The Court also rejected Crane’s argument that “housing seriously mentally ill prisoners at risk of suicide in cells that facilitated hanging constituted deliberate indifference” because she failed to “support this claim with any precedent from the Supreme Court or this circuit, which is ordinarily required to demonstrate a right is clearly established.”
The Court also rejected the out-of-circuit cases Crane cited: Sanville v. McCaughtry, 266 F.3d 724 (7th Cir. 2001); Jacobs v. West Feliciana Sheriff s Dep’t, 228 F.3d 388 (5th Cir. 2000); Snow v. City of Citronelle, 420 F.3d 1262 (11th Cir. 2005); and Coleman v. Parkman, 349 F.3d 534 (8th Cir. 2003), saying they “do not clearly establish that confining suicidal inmates in cells that facilitate hanging is unconstitutional per se.”
“[W]e see nothing in these cases clearly establishing a constitutional right where the defendant lacks that subjective knowledge [that a prisoner is suicidal],” the Court decided.
“To be sure,” the Court allowed, “prison conditions may be so deficient that an inmate’s constitutional rights are implicated, without regard to the inmate’s mental health…[b]ut the clearly established law in this area is limited.”
Concluding that Crane had “fail[ed] to identify any precedent clearly establishing” that “subjecting a suicidal and intellectually disabled individual to these unusually harsh solitary confinement conditions [is] unconstitutional,” the Court held that “[q]ualified immunity shields the CUCF Defendants from Ms. Crane’s Eighth Amendment claims.”
It also agreed that her “Amended Complaint fails to state a plausible claim for relief under Title II of the ADA, and the district court appropriately declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction” over Crane’s state claim. Finding no reversible error in the district court’s dismissal, the Court then affirmed the order. Crane was represented by Randall W. Richards of the Clearfield law firm of Richards and Brown, as well as Samuel Weiss of Rights Behind Bars in Washington, D.C. See: Crane v. Utah Dep’t of Corr., 15 F.4th 1296 (10th Cir. 2021).
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Related legal case
Crane v. Utah Dep’t of Corr.
|15 F.4th 1296 (10th Cir. 2021)
|Court of Appeals
|Appeals Court Edition