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Third Circuit Strips Qualified Immunity From Delaware Guards Who Held Mentally Ill Prisoner in Solitary for Seven Months

by David M. Reutter

In a decision filed on November 28, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed the grant of qualified immunity (QI) to Delaware prison officials in a lawsuit brought by a mentally ill prisoner held in solitary confinement for seven months, alleging they knew this “carried a risk of substantial harm and caused him to suffer debilitating pain that served no penological purpose.”

The prisoner, Angelo Clark, had a ten-year history of manic depression and paranoid schizophrenia when he got into a mealtime altercation with another prisoner at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center (JTVCC) on January 22, 2016. Despite having few disciplinary “points” on his prison record and no security classification meriting confinement, Clark was isolated in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) — solitary confinement.

There he was deprived of opportunity to engage in “normal” human interaction; he was not allowed to work and barred from educational programs or religious services. He was allowed only four phone calls and four visits per month.

Moreover, SHU policy required prisoners to “earn their way out” by exhibiting appropriate behavior. But Clark’s isolation resulted in outbursts and an inability to calm down. These were treated as disciplinary incidents that extended his SHU stay — ultimately to seven months. In the time he spent there, the Court later recalled, “Clark was trapped in a ‘vicious cycle’ where his mental illness would cause behavior that was punished by conditions that furthered his mental deterioration.”

As his mental health worsened in SHU, Clark experienced “increased hallucinations, paranoia, self-mutilation, sleeplessness, and nightmares,” according to the complaint he filed. With the aid of Wilmington attorneys Chad S.C. Stover and Regina S.E. Murphy of Barnes & Thornburg, Clark brought suit in federal court for the District of Delaware, claiming the prison policy as applied to him had resulted in an over-long stay in solitary confinement that violated his Eighth Amendment guarantee of freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.

Clark’s lawsuit further alleged that JTVCC Warden David Pierce and Robert Coupe, Commissioner of the state Department of Corrections (DOC), had the authority to veto and reclassify a prisoner’s housing status, but they refused to reclassify Clark despite knowing about his mental illness.

It was also alleged that Pierce participated in a study by the American Correctional Association (ACA) recommending prisons implement measures to ensure that isolation would not exacerbate a prisoner’s mental illness. The ACA report singled out Pierce, stating that he was not “open to change in regards to restrictive housing objective and classification regarding the mentally ill.” It also cited his override authority in “decision[s] on classification and/or mentally ill treatment decisions.”

Coupe and Pierce moved to dismiss Clark’s suit, claiming QI. The district court found no clearly established right that they had violated and granted the defendants’ motion. Clark appealed.

The Third Circuit began by asking whether Clark made sufficient allegations that his confinement conditions posed a substantial risk of harm. The Court decided he had, citing Palakovic v. Wetzel, 854 F.3d 209 (3rd Cir. 2017). That decision upheld a claim that similar conditions imposed by prison officials presented a substantial risk of serious harm to another mentally ill prisoner. Therefore, the Court said, Clark’s “allegations that he was kept in solitary confinement by prison officials who were deliberately indifferent to the effects of prolonged isolation on his already severely compromised mental health are sufficient to raise a viable Eighth Amendment claim.”

Turning then to determine whether QI was properly awarded, the Third Circuit noted that the Supreme Court recognized as far back as 1890 that conditions of solitary confinement posed a threat to prisoners’ mental health, citing In re Medley, 134 U.S. 160 (1890). The Court then cited precedents over the last 30 years showing a right to be protected from such conditions was well established. In fact, it noted, DOC’s own policies require prison officials to “consider sufficiently the role mental illness played in … determining the appropriateness of sanctions or the conditions or duration of the sanctions.”

Finally, five years before Clark’s stint in SHU, a state law was enacted — Del.Code Ann. tit. 11, § 3902 — which prohibits a state court from imposing a term of solitary confinement longer than three months. “Had Clark’s seven-month term in solitary confinement been imposed by a Delaware state court, it would have been illegal,” the Court noted.

Since Defendants were on notice that their alleged conduct was unreasonable, the district court’s order dismissing Clark’s claim was reversed. Before the Court, Clark received additional representation from attorneys Dwayne J. Bensing and Susan L. Burke of the American Civil Liberties Union. See: Clark v. Coupe, 55 F.4th 167 (3d Cir. 2022).

The case has now returned to the district court, and PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Clark v. Coupe, USDC (D. Del.), Case No. 1:17-cv-00066. 

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