Appeals court: Mentally ill prisoner held in solitary confinement for months can sue MDOC

LANSING — Michigan Department of Corrections officials can be sued for apparently violating their own rules by placing a seriously mentally ill prisoner in solitary confinement for three months, where he had earlier repeatedly cut himself, swallowed razor blades and written on the wall with his own blood, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Although prisoner Timothy Finley’s self-harm eventually stopped after he was indefinitely assigned to “administrative segregation” at Marquette Branch Prison, where he had previously been held intermittently, his mental health declined further, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a 2-1 opinion released Wednesday.

“Finley experienced near-total isolation,” Circuit Judge David McKeague wrote in the majority opinion.

“With limited exceptions, (Finley) spent 24 hours per day alone in a windowless cell,” McKeague wrote.

“The cell allowed virtually no natural light to reach its occupant. And unlike other solitary cells at the same facility, Finley’s base-level cell was effectively soundproofed by a layer of security glass.”

The opinion noted that the MDOC has at least two types of solitary confinement: punitive and administrative. Finley was placed in administrative solitary confinement, which isn’t technically a form of punishment but is sometimes used to manage prisoners who are too disruptive or pose potential harm to themselves or others.

The opinion also noted that experts agree that solitary confinement, while difficult for a mentally sound person, “is particularly devastating for those with severe psychiatric disorders.” MDOC rules stress that mentally ill prisoners should not normally be placed in solitary confinement if their illnesses might prevent their proper adjustment.

The opinion noted that the MDOC has several treatment-related programs deemed more appropriate than solitary confinement for prisoners with severe mental illness, including the Residential Treatment Program, the Secure Status Outpatient Treatment Program, and the Interim Care Program, designed to remove mentally ill prisoners from solitary and place them in the general population.

Danny Wimmer, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, which represents the MDOC defendants, said officials were still reviewing the opinion late Wednesday. “We will consult with our client and evaluate next steps,” he said. An MDOC did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Finley, now 43 and on parole, sued in 2018 over prison officials’ decisions to keep him in solitary for three months in 2016 and 2017, after his long history of mental illness, which included bipolar and major depressive disorders, deteriorated into a severe mental crisis in late August 2016, according to the case summary included with the opinion. Finley also has a lengthy rap sheet of prison misconduct, according to the case summary.

Finley named as defendants Erica Huss, who was the deputy warden, and Sarah Schroeder, who temporarily served as deputy warden while Huss was on a leave of absence. Among other counts, Finley alleged violation of his 8th Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment and his constitutional right to due process.

In Grand Rapids, U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker dismissed the claims, citing governmental immunity. But in its Wednesday ruling, the 6th Circuit said Finley can proceed with his cruel and unusual punishment claim.

While in temporary administrative solitary confinement in September 2016, Finley started cutting himself with a razor blade and wrote “death” on the wall of his cell with his own blood, according to the opinion. He was then placed in suicide observation for nine days, during which time he repeatedly cut himself, overdosed on medication, swallowed razor blades, and received more misconduct tickets for masturbating, the case summary said.

In September, a prison registered nurse, Randi Salmi, wrote that prolonged confinement in solitary would likely cause Finley’s mental health to deteriorate. Despite that, on Sept. 27, a prison security classification committee assigned Finley to administrative segregation. In apparent defiance of MDOC rules, the committee, which included a mental health professional, made that decision without discussing the possibility of placing Finley in a treatment program as an alternative, McKeague wrote in the majority opinion.

Within hours of his classification, Finley, while still held in temporary solitary confinement, “overdosed and swallowed half a razor blade,” the opinion said. “After a trip to the emergency room, Finley returned to suicide observation. He then took even more pills, cut himself, and swallowed another half razor blade.” Finley was eventually airlifted to the medical center at U-M, where doctors removed several razor blades from his body, including one that had been lodged in his throat for nearly a month, the opinion said.

But in October, after another spell of suicide observation, the committee again assigned Finley to solitary without discussing mental treatment alternatives, the opinion said.

That month, Salmi sent a concerned email to prison officials that said Finley’s “treatment needs cannot be met while in segregation placement.” Salmi formally requested Finley’s transfer to the Interim Care Program. Prison officials agreed, but Finley would remain in solitary, on a waiting list for the treatment program, for the next two and a half months, the opinion said.

Circuit Judge Amul Thapar dissented, saying all of Finley’s claims should have been dismissed.

Finley’s lengthy disciplinary record included acts of violence and “left the wardens to keep Finley — and everyone else — safe,” Thapar wrote. “General population obviously wasn’t an option. Suicide observation wasn’t working. And his doctor didn’t refer him to the treatment center. That left segregation.”

Finley’s lawyer, Christine Monta of the MacArthur Justice Center in Washington, D.C., said she’s pleased with the decision.

“Rather than treat Mr. Finley’s serious mental health needs, these officials imposed on him a condition they knew would make it drastically worse: months of near-total isolation in a windowless cell the size of a compact parking space,” Monta said in an email. “We are gratified that the Sixth Circuit has recognized Mr. Finley’s humanity and allowed his case to proceed.”

EUP News Staff

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