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North Carolina Supreme Court Affirms Class Certification Denial in Prisoners’ Challenge to Solitary Confinement

On November 4, 2022, the North Carolina Supreme Court refused to overturn a lower court’s decision denying class certification in a challenge brought by state prisoners to the use of solitary confinement. In its ruling, the high court agreed with defendant officials from the state Department of Public Safety (DPS) that there was no evidence of any “alleged risk of harm.”

In October 2019, four state prisoners—Rocky Dewalt, Robert Parham, Anthony McGee and Shawn Bonnett—filed suit in state Superior Court for Wake County, alleging that DPS “policies and practices concerning specific restrictive housing [solitary confinement] assignments violate the state constitution.” Plaintiffs sought to certify a class of current and former prisoners assigned to five restrictive housing classifications under conditions that they said amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, presenting “a substantial risk of harm.”

The classifications at issue included Restrictive Housing for Disciplinary Purposes (RHDP), Restrictive Housing for Control Purposes (RHCP), High Security Maximum Control (HCON), Restrictive Housing for Administrative Purposes (RHAP) and the first two phases of the Rehabilitative Diversion Unit (RDU).

Although all involved segregation, the conditions and length of time served in each classification varied. In RHDP, for example, offenders convicted of disciplinary infractions could retain personal property, make phone calls and receive visits, and they had access to in-cell educational materials. The average stay in RHDP was 11 days. In contrast, HCON “is the most restrictive housing assignment and is for ‘offenders who pose the most serious threat to the safety of staff and other offenders,’” the prisoners’ complaint noted. The average length of stay in HCON, which has much more restrictive conditions of confinement, was 154 days.

Plaintiffs moved for class certification on April 24, 2020, per N.C. Rules of Civil Procedure 23(a). The motion was denied by the trial court, citing three reasons: 1) there was no “common predominating issue” among the potential class members; 2) the proposed class representatives would not fairly and adequately represent the class interests; and 3) a class-action was not the “superior method of adjudication” of the case. Plaintiffs appealed.

Taking up the case, the state Supreme Court found no abuse of discretion by the trial court in its finding that Plaintiffs had failed to present sufficient evidence of “an alleged risk of harm” from DPS solitary confinement policies and practices. Plaintiffs had relied on four studies, the Court noted, but only two concerned DPS, and only one addressed restrictive housing practices. Further, that report, issued by the Vera Institute of Justice, was largely based on DPS policies that had since been revised. No other studies, or expert witnesses, presented evidence that DPS segregation housing assignments resulted in a substantial risk of harm to prisoners.

Additionally, the Court cited differences among the restrictive housing classifications, including the reasons for placement in a particular classification and the length of time prisoners spend there. Given the different processes by which prisoners are placed in solitary—with some placements requiring hearings while others did not—as well as different conditions in each segregation classification—such as access to personal property, phone calls and visits—the Court agreed it could find no “common predominating issue.”

“Plaintiffs have failed to establish that the claims of all potential class members share a common issue capable of resolution with one stroke,” the Court concluded. As that issue was sufficient to justify the trial court’s decision, the Court did not reach the other two reasons relied upon by the lower court and affirmed its order denying class certification.

Justice Anita Earls, joined by Justice Robin Hudson, issued a well-reasoned and stinging dissent that argued the trial court had “erroneously require[d] plaintiffs to prove their case on the merits in the guise of determining a common legal issue,” and “mischaracteriz[ed] the nature of the plaintiffs’ claims.” Those claims, they noted, included the allegation “that in North Carolina, people in solitary confinement are forced to live for twenty-two to twenty-four hours a day in cells no bigger than a typical parking space, with little to no opportunity for meaningful human contact or environmental stimulation.”

The dissent noted longstanding objections to solitary confinement, dating back to an 1890 ruling by the Supreme Court of the U.S., In re Medley, 134 U.S. 160 (1890). In affirming the trial court’s decision, the majority went to “great lengths to find irrelevant differences that do not have any legal significance,” the dissenting justices wrote, such as the conditions and average length of time spent in various segregation classifications. “Because thousands of people are subjected to solitary confinement each day under the same statewide policy, there are thousands of potential class members, all of whom face nearly identical conditions,” they countered. “Class members challenge the same statewide practices, rely on the same legal theory, and seek uniform relief through changes to statewide policy.”

Justice Earls would have reversed the trial court’s order and remanded the case for further proceedings; unfortunately, hers was the dissenting and not the majority opinion. Plaintiffs were represented by attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation, with amicus support from the North Carolina Conference of the NAACP as well as law professors Sharon Dolovich from UCLA, Alexander Reinert from Yeshiva University, Margo Schlanger from the University of Michigan and John F. Stinneford from the University of Florida. See: Dewalt v. Hooks, 382 N.C. 340 (2022).  

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Related legal case

Dewalt v. Hooks