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Florida Solitary Confinement Lawsuit Dismissed

by David M. Reutter

On December 14, 2022, the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) successfully beat back a challenge to use of solitary confinement in its prisons, when prisoner/plaintiffs stipulated to dismissal of their claims. Not content with that victory, apparently, DOC then issued a press release on January 12, 2023, touting more than $210,000 in legal fees and costs it wrested from plaintiffs in what the agency called “their unjustified case.”

As PLN reported, the federal court for the Northern District of Florida had granted aprotective order in the case in February 2021 to prohibit DOC “from improperly communicating with putative class members about the lawsuit” as well as to protect the “putative class members from retaliatory, chilling or harassing conduct.” [See: PLN, Oct. 2021, p.18.]

That order noted evidence showing guards questioned prisoners about what they said to class counsel from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida Legal Services and the Florida Justice Institute. The guards also took property, labeled prisoners “snitches” if they spoke to attorneys and even provided “air bags or air trays” at mealtime depriving them of food.

However, in July 2022 U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor refused to certify a class in the suit, saying it failed to explicitly state the relief that was sought. Plaintiffs claimed they had provided sufficient detail because “their motion and expert declarations identify the policies, practices, and omissions that must be changed,” he recalled but said “this is not enough.”

“Plaintiffs’ inability to specify the injunctive relief sought necessarily means that they have not shown a single injunction would benefit all class (or subclass) members,” Winsor wrote. “And a plaintiff cannot sidestep this rule by requesting an injunction so broad that it technically covers the entire class but that would compel different conduct as to each class member.”Without “commonality” in their claims required for class certification, “plaintiffs have not presented evidence that all (or even most) class members face the same conditions nor combination of interrelated conditions,” wrote Judge Winsor. See: Harvard v. Dixon,USDC (N.D. Fla.), Case No. 4:19-cv-00212.

Shortly after that ruling, in September 2022, the same Court decertified the class in another suit challenging solitary confinement of juveniles committed to DOC custody. In that case, also filed by attorneys from the same three nonprofits, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said that “even if, as the plaintiffs assert, fewer or shorter placements [of juveniles in solitary confinement] or placements under different conditions would be better, that does not mean the current policies are constitutionally deficient. They are not.”

At the same time, the Court said the fact that DOC’s “policies are not unconstitutional does not mean the defendants are entitled to summary judgment.” Rather Judge Hinkle found that “the question whether the named plaintiffs or class members have been subjected to unconstitutional placements or statutory violations turns on far more individualized circumstances than the claims originally advanced by the plaintiffs.” So again the Court found plaintiffs lacked “commonality” – upon which class certification had been granted – and de-certified the class. See: G.H. v. Dep’t of Juv. Justice, USDC (N.D. Fla.), Case No. 4:19-cv-00431.

Though Plaintiffs then dismissed their suit, they were able to claim a measure of victory. As Florida Justice Institute summarized, “[p]olicies were amended to lower the amount of time children can spend in solitary confinement, data is tracked, and the number of children in [Department of Juvenile Justice] custody has declined.”

In the case challenging DOC’s use of solitary with adult prisoners, denial of class certification left the individual plaintiffs “unable to achieve their goal of systematic, statewide injunctive relief to curb solitary confinement,” they told the Court, so they dismissed their claims, as well.  

Additional source: WUSF

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