A prisoner with a history of mental illness was held in solitary confinement at a prison in Virginia for over 600 days, leading to a collapse in his physical and mental condition, a new lawsuit alleges.
Tyquine Lee, 26, is being held at Red Onion state prison and lost over 30lb, the ability to speak, recognize his mother or even remember his own name, the lawsuit states.
Between 26 May 2016 and 31 January 2018, Lee spent more than 22 hours a day in an 80 sq ft concrete cell behind a steel door. His only time outside of the cell was three showers a week and an hour of recreation each day in a steel cage the size of a parking space.
“He went from talking regular to talking in numbers, and a whole other language which I nor anyone else could understand,” said Takeisha Brown, Lee’s mother and legal guardian who filed the lawsuit with the MacArthur Justice Center.
She said: “My heart ached from pain when I heard from my son and I could not get a regular conversation out of him. I’ve lost sleep, and couldn’t eat because of this.”
Prison reform advocates in the US have called for solitary confinement to be banned because they say it constitutes torture. Studies have demonstrated its destructive psychological effects; reformers say there is little to no evidence the practice reduces prison violence.
Brown explained that when she was permitted to visit her son during his confinement, his ribcage was visible, his teeth had visible decay, his clothes were dirty and his prison uniform was falling off him because of the weight he had lost.
“Before we left, Tyquine would start to growl and bark like a dog,” Brown added. “When I got back to my hotel room, I locked myself in the bathroom for hours crying and praying to God that he have mercy on Tyquine’s life.”
During a psychiatric review conducted in January 2018, after more than 600 days in solitary confinement, Lee was diagnosed with schizophrenia and an unspecified personality disorder – illnesses that went untreated and were worsened from solitary confinement. The review also noted that Lee spoke in numbers and invented words, symptoms he had exhibited in previous case reviews but were ignored as signs of severe mental illness.
In Virginia, the state department of corrections has a policy in place that requires prisoners in solitary confinement to complete the Step Down Program to earn their return to the general prison population.
“Our allegation is he was unable to complete Step Down through no fault of his own, but because he was so mentally incapacitated,” said Maggie Filler, attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center representing Lee and his mother in the lawsuit.
Lee has had mental illness since he was a child, often requiring hospitalization. His lawyers on waiting on discovery to find out why he was placed in solitary confinement initially. Lee is reportedly still recovering from the physical and psychological trauma caused by his extensive solitary confinement.
Lee’s lawsuit is not the first one filed against the Virginia department of corrections for its solitary confinement policies at Red Onion state prison.
In September 2018, MacArthur filed a lawsuit against the department and the prison on behalf of Nicolas Reyes.
That lawsuit alleges Reyes spent more than 12 years in solitary confinement at the prison, unable to complete Step Down because it requires reading and writing in English and Reyes is a native Spanish speaker who does not know how to read and write.
The complaint also noted Reyes suffers from mental illness, which worsened as a result of solitary confinement, to the point where he would suffer hallucinations and is often unable to identify the prison where he is held. During his solitary confinement, Reyes lost substantial weight, the lawsuit alleges.
In May this year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia filed a class-action lawsuit which seeks to halt the practice of solitary confinement at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge state prisons, against the department. The lawsuit cites the mental and physical effects on prisoners held in solitary, and that frivolous reasons are used to place and keep prisoners there.
A May 2018 report by the ACLU of Virginia noted the lack of any laws on how the practice is used in state prisons or requirements for state correction officials to collect and report data on its usage. According to the report, this lack of transparency and accountability has enabled abuses, especially of prisoners who suffer from mental health problems.
A 2017 survey of state prisons estimated around 61,000 prisoners are held in solitary confinement in the US on any given day.
Some states are moving against the practice. In June 2019, New Jersey passed a law that limits solitary confinement to a maximum of twenty days. The same month in New York, lawmakers struck a deal with the governor, Andrew Cuomo, to administratively implement some changes limiting the practice in the state’s prison system after a bill failed to reach a vote in the state legislature.
“Nationwide our country is re-examining the solitary confinement practices in our state prisons in particular,” added Filler. “I think both the cases of Lee and Reyes show why its necessary we re-examine this practice.”