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Rikers: Freedom, 2013, made by 25 women incarcerated at Rikers Island
Photo by Steven and William Ladd

Holding Prison Officials Accountable

In last year’s report, we described the firm’s participation in a significant appeal brought on behalf of an incarcerated individual who was challenging his placement in solitary confinement. In a significant victory, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that prison officials are not protected by qualified immunity–a doctrine that shields government actors from being held personally liable for constitutional violations–when they place individuals with known mental illness in prolonged solitary confinement.

In a precedential opinion that relies on the “growing consensus” of legal and scientific authority, the court recognized that incarcerated individuals with serious mental illness have a clearly established constitutional right “not to be placed in solitary confinement for an extended period of time by prison officials who were aware of, but disregarded, the risk of lasting harm posed by such conditions.” The court explained further that the plaintiff “alleged conduct that no reasonable corrections officer could conclude was constitutionally permissible.”

This opinion sends a strong message to prison officials about their potential liability for placing individuals in solitary confinement, and we hope it will help stop this overused, cruel, and inhumane practice. As the Third Circuit explained: “No penological purpose was served by irrevocably damaging [the plaintiff’s] already severely compromised mental health[.]”

Holding Prison Officials Accountable for Misusing Solitary Confinement