Harsh isolation cells give rise to second lawsuit in Georgia

For the second time in two years, an inmate has filed a lawsuit claiming a solitary confinement cell in which he is being held is unnecessarily harsh punishment allowing almost no human contact and no personal possessions — restrictions the inmate has lived under for more than six years.

Inmate Miguel Jackson claims he has been in the “special management unit” reserved for dangerous and disruptive inmates for the past 6 1/2 years, even though the charges that landed him in the cell were dismissed years ago.

Jackson claims a Department of Corrections committee that routinely reviewed his circumstances has repeatedly said he should be transferred off the restrictive unit, known as Tier III, at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Butts County, 50 miles south of Atlanta.

Jackson's description of the special unit is identical to allegations in another pending federal lawsuit that was filed in 2015 by inmate Timothy Gumm, who had been isolated for more than seven years even though the attempted escape charge against him had been removed.

The Department of Corrections declined to comment on either lawsuit because both are pending.

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Jackson’s lawyer, Mario Williams, wrote that Jackson is being held in the solitary confinement for “no justifiable reason.”

Williams wrote that Jackson was being held in the unit because he filed a lawsuit in 2012 against several correctional officers at Smith State Prion, claiming the officers assaulted him and another inmate, Kelevin Stevenson, on Dec. 31, 2010.

Jackson, who is sentenced to prison until 2048 for armed robbery, said he and another inmate, Kelevin Stevenson, were "brutally beaten" with a hammer and flashlight handles while they were handcuffed and not resisting officers. The aleged assault by officers happened during an inmate protest over working without pay.

Jackson was initially charged with aggravated battery against an officer, but a Tattnall County grand jury indicted him on a charge of obstructing an officer. A judge dismissed the obstruction charge against Jackson on Feb. 3, 2016.

According to DOC policies, a three-person committee is supposed to review the “special management unit” cases every 90 days and recommend if the prisoner should remain there or be moved to a cell block that allows more freedom. Twice the deputy warden and warden agreed with the committee’s recommendations that Jackson be moved off the special unit, but still he has remained, the suit said.

The special management unit was created for dangerous and disruptive inmates. And within the unit there are varying levels of restriction. Inmates like Jackson who are assigned to the most restrictive unit are held in 7- by 13-foot cells 24 hours a day except for the 2 1/2 hours a week they are allowed out for exercise. In contrast, general population inmates go outside at least five days a week and they are allowed to linger in common areas outside their cells much of the day.

Personal items are not allowed in the special management unit, while general population inmates can have books, music, photographs and food items.

“The SMU’s 192 solitary confinement cells are specially designed to isolate people by depriving them of sensory stimuli and restricting their movement,” Jackson’s lawyer wrote.

A metal shield covers the exterior windows so that “virtually no natural air or sunlight enters the cells,” the federal suit said.

Georgia mysteries 

A "cold case" is a criminal investigation where all leads have been exhausted and the case remains unsolved. Cold cases are sometimes solved because someone had the courage to come forward and provide a new detail to investigators. To read more about Georgia's unsolved homicides and missing person cases go to myAJC.com/coldcases.

Cell doors are solid metal and have small, grated windows that are blocked by a sliding metal cover. Some cells include a shower head and drain so those inmates bathe where they sleep. Inmates in cells without are strip searched and handcuffed and shackled when they are taking out to bathe.

Inmates in the most restrictive unit are limited to one visit with relatives a month, during which no physical contact is allowed. General population inmates, meanwhile, are allowed at least six hours for “contact visits” every weekend and on holidays.

“People in the SMU, particularly in the more restrictive phases, frequently have difficulty adjusting to prolonged isolation,” Jackson’s suit said. “Some prisoners scream for hours on end. Others destroy property, bang on doors constantly, disfigure or cut themselves or smear feces on the walls of their cells.”