State agrees to improve prison conditions in solitary confinement unit

The Georgia Diagnostic and Classifcation Prison near Jackson houses 2,500 inmates. (John Spink/AJC)

The Georgia Diagnostic and Classifcation Prison near Jackson houses 2,500 inmates. (John Spink/AJC)

The state Department of Corrections has agreed to improve prison conditions at a solitary confinement unit that one inspector found to have created some of the most psychologically traumatized inmates he’d ever encountered.

The agreement is part of a settlement reached in a lawsuit brought by inmates who served years in solitary in the 192-bed "special management unit" at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson. 

As described by lawyers representing the prisoners, some were confined in solitary cells for years under such draconian conditions that they suffered irreversible psychological harm. The cells were described as “smaller than the average parking space” and inmates could have only 5 hours each week outside of the solitary cells.

Under the settlement, inmates will not be held in the cells for more than two years, except under special circumstances, and will be allowed outside their cells for 4 hours each day.

And while the terms of the settlement apply to only to one prison, there are indications the changes could be used elsewhere.

“The settlement represents a change in culture for (the Department of Corrections) and a realization and an acknowledgement of the profound harms caused by long-term isolated confinement,” said Sarah Geraghty, one of the lawyers representing the inmates. “We … look forward to seeing similar reforms of other isolation units across the state.”

Sarah Geraghty, a lawyer with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. (File photo)

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In a statement, the Department of Corrections said it recognizes there have been national reforms of restrictive prison housing and it is working to follow those trends.

“Through these internal processes, we have seen a reduction in restrictive housing by 40 percent,” the agency said. “We continue to provide opportunities for programming, education and other specialized needs for those offenders in restrictive housing units who want to make positive changes, while at the same time managing those who threaten the safety and security of our facilities.”

Craig Haney, a University of California, Santa Cruz, professor who specializes in the psychological effects of imprisonment, inspected the prison in Jackson, which has almost 2,500 beds and is the location for Georgia's Death Row and executions. The atmosphere in the solitary unit, he said, was "as chaotic and out-of-control as any such unit I have seen in decades of conducting evaluations."

Some of the inmates’ psychological harm, he found, “may be irreversible and even fatal.”

Craig Haney, a psychology professor who inspected Georgia’s solitary confinement unit in Jackson. (University of California, Santa Cruz)

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Some inmates had no meaningful review of their confinement and no understanding of what they could do to qualify for release, Geraghty said.

“The isolation from other human beings was almost total,” she said. “Some were kept for months in darkened cells. Additionally, many people in the special management unit had serious mental illness and some were actively and obviously psychotic.”

Under the settlement, the Department of Corrections agreed inmates in solitary can spend more time outside their cells: Three hours in a common area sitting in restraints plus an hour of recreation time in outdoor cages.

Within six months, the inmates will have the opportunity to participate in two hours a week of out-of-cell computer time or educational classes, including GED programs. They also get to keep prison-issued tablets in their cells at all times.

To address concerns that inmates were being released directly from solitary back into society at the end of their sentence, the department also agreed a prison committee can allow an inmate with six months or one year left to be transferred to a less-restrictive environment.

The case was initially brought in 2015 by Timothy Gumm, who filed a handwritten lawsuit on his own behalf. Gumm, who is serving a life sentence for rape and other offenses, was held in the solitary unit for more than seven years before being transferred out in July 2017.

In a handwritten motion filed in early 2016, Gumm asked U.S. Magistrate Charles Weigle in Macon to appoint a lawyer to his case because he had no legal education. Moreover, he wrote, his solitary confinement would “greatly limit” his ability to litigate the case.

Nine months later, Weigle appointed both Geraghty and Ryan Primerano of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta to represent Gumm. In his order, Weigle acknowledged there is no right to counsel in civil rights cases, except for “exceptional” ones such as Gumm’s.

Inmate Timothy Gumm. (Georgia Department of Corrections)

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The Southern Center, which has litigated prison conditions cases for decades, got lawyers from the Atlanta firm Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton to join the lawsuit. They also brought in Haney, whose report documenting his inspection appeared to be a watershed moment in the litigation.

“I’m pleased with the resolution and cautiously optimistic the state will make good on its promises,” Haney said, noting the settlement calls for monitoring of the situation going forward. “The most important part is getting these men out of their cells as many hours a day as feasible.”

Haney said he was also pleased that the Department of Corrections will allow some of the solitary confinement inmates to take educational courses. “It’s not just being out of your cell that’s important, it’s being out with something useful to do,” he said.