Florida has one of the highest rates of solitary confinement in the nation, at one eighth of the total state prison population. Florida’s usage of solitary is extreme not only in its scale, but also its implementation, with African Americans and individuals with mental illness significantly overrepresented in isolation. Florida’s prisons and juvenile detention centers also confine minors erratically and without much oversight. The state’s solitary confinement units have also played a role in several high profile deaths in recent years.
This month, a group of Florida civil rights and mental health advocates, religious leaders, and journalists sent a letter to the U.S. Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, asking for investigation into Florida prisons’ overuse of solitary confinement, their potentially discriminatory implementation of solitary, and their abuse of incarcerated individuals.
The letter asks for the DOJ Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section to investigate whether Florida’s usage of solitary confinement constitutes a violation of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), which the authors believe to be the case. CRIPA is a longstanding federal law that allows the DOJ to investigate abuse and intervene on behalf of people, including incarcerated individuals, whose institutional living situations may make reporting abuse significantly difficult or uncomfortable.
One of the letter’s chief complaints is that Florida’s rate of solitary confinement is far too high. The letter cites Florida Department of Corrections statistics showing that as of this past September, 12,436 Florida prisoners were being kept in solitary confinement. This means that one of every eight people in Florida prisons is kept in solitary, over three times the average rate of solitary confinement in state prisons across the United States. Solitary confinement in Florida consists of confinement to an isolated cell for at least 22 hours a day, often more.
Another complaint raised by the letter is the racial disparities in the use of solitary confinement. Black men are overrepresented in solitary confinement by 10 percent, in respect to the makeup of the general prison population. The racial disparity is even worse for black women, who are overrepresented in solitary by 20 percent. The letter also cites overuse of solitary confinement for incarcerated individuals with mental illness, of whom. 22.5 percent are in isolation.
The letter also raises concerns over the use of solitary confinement among juveniles in Florida correctional facilities. There are 138 children under 18 held in Florida’s adult prisons, one-third of whom are kept in solitary confinement. When the letters’ authors inquired as to whether special consideration was being given to protecting these juveniles “from the physical and psychological burdens of confinement,” Florida’s Department of Corrections only responded with a statement saying “The Department is complying with PREA [Prison Rape Elimination Act] standards relative to those who are 17 and under.”
Additionally, Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice operates a number of juvenile-only correctional facilities that house 2,800 youths. Though these facilities have more restrictions on the use of solitary confinement than Florida’s adult prisons, the numbers provided by these facilities showed significant variation in the rate of solitary usage, with some facilities using isolation at five times the rate of other juvenile detention centers.
The group’s request for an investigation into Florida’s usage of solitary first stemmed from the 2012 death of Darren Rainey, who was locked by corrections officers in a shower scalding him with 180 degree water in Miami’s Dade Correctional Institution. Nearly four years later, no charges have been filed in the death of Rainey, who was being held in a form of solitary confinement for people with mental illness called a Transitional Care Unit at the time.
The same group that sent the letter regarding solitary, initially requested that the Department of Justice investigate Rainey’s death and the treatment of prisoners with mental illness across Florida’s prison system. However, according to one of the letter’s co-authors, Howard Simon, director of the Florida ACLU, post-Ferguson investigations into police misbehavior had stretched thin the DOJ’s resources, so the department asked that “the request for federal resources be more targeted” than the treatment of all Florida prisoners with mental illness. “They suggested that if we could focus on a particular problem,” Howard told Solitary Watch “it was more likely that they would be able to do something.”
The group of advocates decided to focus on solitary confinement in part because of the TCU confinement involved in Rainey’s death and staggering rates of Florida’s use of confinement in general. They were also concerned with a number of other recent instances of extreme suffering and death that have occurred in solitary confinement in Florida prisons.
These incidents include the deaths of Rommell Johnson, a known asthmatic, who died in solitary confinement after being twice gassed with a chemical agent; Randall Jordan-Aparo, who died after being gassed three times despite being ill with a rare blood disorder; and Yalex Tirado, who died in a solitary confinement cell in juvenile-only detention center where the sodomizing of prisoners with broomsticks in common, according to reporting by the Miami Herald.
The letter’s authors have also contacted the Florida Department of Corrections in hopes of preemptive action to reduce solitary confinement in Florida before a DOJ investigation. Steve Wetstein, of Amnesty International’s Miami Chapter, another co-author of the letter, called Florida’s overuse of solitary confinement a “clear violation of civil rights.” He told Solitary Watch that Amnesty International’s focus on protecting human rights often calls for a focus on civil rights, like those of incarcerated people in Florida prisons. “When you want to end injustice,” he said, “civil liberties and human rights are often just the same.”
The Department of Justice confirmed that they have received the letter, but declined to comment further.