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Maryland asks judge to toss lawsuit over solitary confinement of mentally ill prisoners

Maryland prison officials are asking a federal judge to throw out a lawsuit that claimed putting incarcerated people with serious mental illness into extended solitary confinement violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The reply in U.S. District Court in Baltimore argues that the group that brought the lawsuit, Disability Rights Maryland, does not have standing to sue.

“In this case, (Disability Rights Maryland) has not identified any member of its organization who has suffered a concrete or particularized injury,” wrote lawyers for the state Attorney General’s Office, which is defending the lawsuit. “DRM does not allege that any of the inmates whose conditions of confinement are described in the complaint are members of DRM.”

Disability Rights Maryland brought the suit as the state’s federally mandated protection and advocacy organization, which is tasked with protecting the rights of people with disabilities. The organization said in the complaint that it had interviewed more than 150 incarcerated people and that, as a membership organization, it met the criteria for associational standing in the lawsuit.

Lawyers for the state argued, however, that DRM cannot represent incarcerated people with serious mental illness as a group, and that the individual prisoners must instead participate in the lawsuit and exhaust their administrative remedies before proceeding.

“It is clear that each of the situations presented in the Complaint reflect very different individuals facing unique situations,” the state’s lawyers wrote. “As a result, the claims made and the relief requested require the participation of individual members in the suit.”

The complaint included examples of prisoners with serious mental illness who stayed in solitary confinement for hundreds or even more than a thousand days. The incarcerated people are not named in the lawsuit but are identified by their initials.

Under the conditions of solitary confinement, including limited time out of their cells and either intense isolation or being “double-celled,” which forces two prisoners to spend nearly all of their time in close quarters, the symptoms of severe mental illness can get worse, medical experts say.

The complaint alleged that department is discriminating against people with severe mental illness by placing them in segregation at higher rates than prisoners without mental illness, and that people being held in solitary confinement don’t receive adequate mental health services because of serious staffing shortages.

The lawsuit asked the judge overseeing the case, U.S. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander, to halt the use of solitary confinement on people with severe mental illness and to require a corrective action plan that would include an expert monitor.

The state argued in its response that DRM did not show that prison practices violate the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment.

The complaint, the state wrote, only made general claims about solitary confinement, such as confinement to a cell and limitations on prison programs, which are “typical conditions of segregation,” not the kind of “serious deprivation of a human need” that constitutes an Eighth Amendment violation.

The state also responded that prison officials met with DRM to discuss their concerns about the treatment of incarcerated people with serious mental illness, showing their willingness to address problems.

The case is docketed at Disability Rights Maryland, Inc. v. Green et al, 1:21-cv-02959.