A challenge to Florida prison solitary confinement ends


By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — After more than three years of legal battling, the Florida Department of Corrections has fended off a lawsuit over the use of solitary confinement in prisons.

U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor last month issued an order dismissing the case at the request of organizations representing inmates. The Department of Corrections on Thursday touted the dismissal and said the organizations paid more than $210,000 to the department in legal costs.

“While I respect other reasonable viewpoints on the use of restrictive housing, decisions must inherently be left up to experienced corrections leaders who are ultimately responsible for managing the nation’s most dangerous criminals — not activist groups representing frequently distorted, inaccurate, and deficiently supported ideologies that risk serious threat to staff and the majority of the inmate population alike,” Corrections Secretary Ricky Dixon said in a prepared statement.

Attorneys for the Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida Legal Services and the Florida Justice Institute filed a motion in September to dismiss the case. That came after Winsor in July declined to certify a class action in the lawsuit.

The motion said the denial of class certification left individual plaintiffs “unable to achieve their goal of systemic, statewide injunctive relief” to curb solitary confinement.

But the dismissal was not finalized until last month as the organizations and the department fought over legal fees and costs. The parties filed a joint motion Dec. 16 saying they had reached agreement on costs, though that document did not include the $210,000 figure that the department announced Thursday.

The lawsuit, filed in May 2019, alleged that the department’s use of solitary confinement violated the constitutional rights of inmates, including inmates with disabilities. It named individual plaintiffs and sought approval as a class action.

But Winsor ruled in July that the plaintiffs had not met legal tests for a class action, including not providing specific details about relief they sought.

“Plaintiffs’ inability to specify the injunctive relief sought necessarily means they have not shown a single injunction would benefit all class (or subclass) members. … And plaintiffs 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,” Winsor wrote.

He also wrote the plaintiffs had not shown “commonality” in their claims.

“The problem is that plaintiffs have not presented evidence that all (or even most) class members face the same conditions or combination of interrelated conditions,” Winsor wrote.

In a news release Thursday, the Department of Corrections disputed the underlying claims in the lawsuit, including the plaintiffs’ definition of solitary confinement.

“The use of restrictive housing is not ‘one size fits all,’ and a number of variables impact its necessity within prison systems,” Dixon said. “It is ill-advised to allow public interest groups to unreasonably limit the options of corrections professionals in dealing with violent inmates.”

The end of the Department of Corrections case came after U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in September dismissed a lawsuit challenging the use of solitary confinement in Florida juvenile-justice facilities. Hinkle issued the order after attorneys for the plaintiffs and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice reached an agreement to end the lawsuit, which was filed in 2019.

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