MoFo Represents Disability Rights Connecticut in Lawsuit Alleging Cruel and Unusual Punishment of Prisoners with Mental Illness

Earlier this month, a Morrison & Foerster pro bono team led by New York IP Litigation partner Kyle Mooney and New York IP Litigation associates Eric Lin
and Neal Burstyn, filed a federal  lawsuit against the Connecticut Department of Correction (DOC) for the alleged physical and psychological abuse of prisoners with mental illness who are currently incarcerated at, or at risk of transfer to,  Northern Correctional Institution (“Northern”), the state’s only supermax prison.  Our client in the suit is Disability Rights Connecticut, Inc. (DRCT), a non-profit organization established pursuant to federal law and designated to represent the legal interests of people with disabilities in the state.  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Foundation of Connecticut and the Lowenstein International Human Rights Law Clinic at Yale Law School, along with DRCT, are our co-counsel.

DRCT alleges that the DOC’s use of prolonged isolation and in-cell shackling of people with mental illness constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.  The lawsuit alleges that prisoners with mental illness are subjected to “prolonged isolation” where they spend 22-24 hours per day in concrete cells with near-total social and sensory deprivation.  The lawsuit also alleges that prisoners with mental illness are routinely and repeatedly subject to in-cell shackling, where prisoners are left with their arms and legs shackled together in “strip cells” for 24 or even 72 hours at a time. DRCT alleges that DOC’s failure to make modifications to its policies and practices surrounding prolonged isolation and in-cell shackling for people with mental illness is a violation of disability discrimination laws.

In a statement, Tyrone Spence, who has been in DOC custody since 2010, gave a harrowing first-hand account of the mental and physical abuses he sustained while at the prison. “Northern staff chained me up more than 50 times, often with the chain so short I had to bend or crouch the whole time,” he said. Additionally, he survived multiple suicide crises while at Northern. “Now, just the sight of handcuffs can give me debilitating anxiety,” he added. “Those years at Northern made me feel like I’d lost my humanity. I don’t want anyone else to have to experience what I’ve been through.”

According to Kyle Mooney, lead MoFo attorney on the case, “Northern’s extreme conditions are disturbing in several respects, but two particularly egregious aspects are the population of mentally ill prisoners that are subjected to those inhuman conditions and the barbaric and repeated in-cell shackling of those prisoners.”

The lawsuit seeks a court order barring DOC from subjecting people with mental illness to prolonged isolation or in-cell shackling.  Captioned Disability Rights Connecticut, Inc. v Connecticut Department of Correction, the suit was filed on February 4, 2021 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut.

The joint press release and the complaint are available on the ACLU of Connecticut website. or at www.disrightsct.com