A 28-year-old former Florida inmate with a history of epilepsy says he was beaten and thrown in solitary confinement for seven months after he involuntarily bit a correctional officer while having a seizure.
In a federal civil rights lawsuit filed last month and first reported by The Miami Herald, Dean Higgins claims he suffered a grand mal seizure last September at the Florida Department of Corrections' (FDOC) Desoto Correctional Institution. While the guards tried to restrain Higgins—an improper way to handle someone having a seizure—he bit one of the guards on the arm.
Higgins, who was serving two years in Florida state prison for lewd and lascivious conduct, claims he was then beaten and punished by being placed in solitary confinement for more than seven months in a tiny cell. "Sewage would backup in the units and raw sewage would seep into Higgins' cell, at times a number of inches deep," the suit says.
Higgins' lawsuit alleges he was subjected to excessive force and battery, and that the conditions of his confinement amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and violations of his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). According to the suit, in addition to having epilepsy, Higgins is also on the autism spectrum.
"A person might be arrested for treating a dog like this," Benjamin Stevenson, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney representing Higgins, told the Herald.
The FDOC declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. However, lawyers for the FDOC denied Higgins' allegations in a reply to his complaint. According to the department narrative, correctional officers suspected Higgins was having an adverse drug reaction to "spice," or synthetic marijuana, a common drug in prisons across the country.
Although FDOC policy requires correctional officers to turn on their body cams during use-of-force incidents as soon as possible, the FDOC admitted in its reply that body camera footage only began 38 minutes after the incident started and "that there was an approximately eight-minute interruption to change batteries."
The lawsuit comes as the FDOC is fighting another class-action lawsuit—brought the Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida Legal Services, and the Florida Justice Institute—challenging the state's use of prolonged solitary confinement on inmates.
"There's a growing scientific and community consensus that solitary confinement amounts to torture—mostly psychologically, but also for physical issues as well," says Dante Trevisani, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute. "When you deprive people of like basic human contact, it can be very devastating for them. That's especially true with people who have existing mental illness, or have other disabilities, or are pregnant or juveniles."
As Reason previously reported, the mental and physical effects of prolonged solitary confinement can be particularly acute for inmates with disabilities.
Trevisani says there are about 10,000 Florida inmates in solitary confinement at any given time, about 10 percent of the overall population. Most other states, he says, average around 5 percent.
Trevisani also says that under the level one "close management" confinement that Higgins was placed into—the most severe in the Florida prison system—inmates are only allowed out of their cells three times a week to shower. After the first 30 days, they're allowed up to three hours of recreation time a week.
"We think that this is cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, and so we're trying to end the way that solitary confinement is used in Florida," he says.
Last month, three correctional officers at Lake Correctional Institution, a state prison deep in the Florida panhandle, were arrested and charged with battery and filing false reports after cell phone video leaked by an inmate showed them viciously beating another inmate.
A 2013 report on the Tomoka Correctional Institution in Florida by HEARD, an advocacy group for deaf prisoners, documented numerous allegations of sexual assault, rape, theft, retaliation by staff, and general cruelty against inmates with disabilities.
In 2012, two Florida correctional officers put Darren Rainey, a schizophrenic inmate, in a scalding, jury-rigged shower for two hours, where he died.
Florida has the third-largest inmate population in the U.S., and despite falling admissions over the past several years, the population has stubbornly hovered around 97,000. The sticky number is partly due to the harsh mandatory minimums that the state passed during the tough-on-crime 1990s, which has saddled the state with an aging and increasingly expensive population.
A bipartisan group of Florida lawmakers has been trying to get a handle on the understaffed, underfunded prison system, but without a huge influx of money or drastic changes to how the state incarcerates people, the situation is unlikely to change in the near future.
"I think it's just almost criminal on the state's part that we can't look somebody in the eye and tell them that their relative will be safe while they are a ward of the state prison facilities." Florida Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes told Reason earlier this year. "It's terrifying."