ATLANTA (AP) — Men held in solitary confinement at a Georgia prison are subject to such harsh and isolating conditions and receive such inadequate mental health care that self-injury and violence are common, according to a new federal lawsuit.
The lawsuit filed Friday against a dozen Department of Corrections officials says the conditions in certain parts of Georgia State Prison in Reidsville are so terrible that they violate the constitutional rights of the men housed there. Brought on behalf of three men held at the prison who are seeking class-action status, the lawsuit seeks “to stop prison officials from isolating people in deplorable conditions.”
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Joan Heath said in an email Monday that the agency had not yet received the lawsuit and does not comment on pending litigation.
Department policy says the solitary confinement program is meant to be a roughly nine-month “incentive program” used to encourage “appropriate adjustments” so prisoners can be returned to the general prison population, the lawsuit says. But in practice, it alleges, men are held there for months or even years, “despite the serious health consequences of long-term solitary confinement.”
They are locked in their cells 24 hours a day, apart from occasional showers, medical appointments and legal visits and have very limited access to phones, recreation or social interaction, the lawsuit says. In some areas, cells are infested by rats and roaches and smell of urine and feces because human waste accumulates in toilets and the flush mechanism is controlled by staff, the lawsuit says.
Because of a critical staffing shortage, there are not enough officers to “run the prison in a humane manner," the lawsuit says, meaning men often miss recreation time and sometimes there are not enough officers to take men to the showers or infirmary.
At least 12 men have died by suicide at the prison in the past two years, including some who were held in solitary confinement at the time, the lawsuit says.
The abysmal conditions are not new, according to the lawsuit. Prison and Department of Corrections officials have been made aware of the risk of serious harm by department auditors, as well as men held there and their lawyers but have failed to take action, the suit alleges.
“People spend months or years in solitary confinement without access to the basic necessities of a dignified life, like sunshine, fresh air, clean living spaces, and mental health treatment," said Alison Ganem, an attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, which filed the lawsuit along with lawyers at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton. "Without immediate action to address these unconstitutional and immoral conditions, more people are likely to die.”
The lawsuit asks a judge to order prison officials to offer at least four hours a day of out-of-cell time to people in solitary confinement, including one hour of outdoor time. It also asks a judge to order prison officials to make plans within 30 days to deal properly with people with mental illness and those experiencing mental health crises and to provide clean and humane conditions.