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10th Circuit sides with Utah prison officers in suit over inmate suicide

The grandmother of an inmate who died by suicide sued the Utah Department of Corrections in 2016, claiming the use of solitary confinement on a person at risk of suicide amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

DENVER (CN) — The 10th Circuit on Thursday agreed Utah Department of Corrections officers who placed a mentally ill 19-year-old inmate in solitary confinement prior before the inmate took his own life have qualified immunity in a lawsuit brought by the inmate's grandmother.

As a child, Brock Tucker suffered a near-fatal downing accident, leaving him with an IQ of 70. While serving a sentence for car theft, Tucker spent 115 of 160 days in solitary confinement as punishment for possessing tattoo paraphernalia, getting tattooed, swearing and throwing an unidentified liquid at other inmates. Tucker, then 19, hanged himself with a bedsheet while in solitary confinement in October 2014.

His grandmother, Janet Crane, sued the Utah Department of Corrections in October 2016, claiming the state’s discriminated against Tucker because of his mental disabilities, leading to his suicide.

After granting qualified immunity to multiple state defendants, a lower court dismissed Crane’s complaint in February 2020. Crane appealed to the 10th Circuit in March.

“Ms. Crane alleges the Central Utah Correctional Facility defendants subjected Mr. Tucker to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The CUCF defendants argue they are shielded from these claims by qualified immunity,” U.S. Circuit Judge Carolyn B. McHugh, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote in a 32-page opinion.

Crane had argued putting an inmate at risk of suicide in solitary confinement was cruel and unusual punishment, pointing to cases demonstrating the decline of mental health for inmates put in punitive solitude.

Still the court found Crane’s evidence did not support a clearly established right.

“Here, the facts are more analogous to cases where qualified immunity was granted," McHugh wrote.

More specifically, McHugh added, “the CUCF defendants’ general use of punitive isolation to discipline prisoners who happen to be mentally ill does not violate clearly established law."

U.S. Circuit Judge Robert E. Bacharach contributed a concurring opinion analyzing Crane’s “sliding scale” approach to establish a mentally ill inmate’s supposed right against solitary confinement.

Bacharach pointed to an unpublished 10th Circuit opinion in Silverstein v. Federal Bureau of Prisons (2009), in which the court found the Eighth Amendment rights of a violent prisoner were not violated by solitary confinement that lasted 30 years.

“Reasonable prison officials might regard long stints of solitary confinement as constitutional even for a mentally ill prisoner,” concluded Bacharach, also an Obama appointee. “Given the lack of a judicial consensus in 2014, how could a prison official have regarded a possible constitutional violation as obvious?”

George W. Bush appointee U.S. Circuit Judge Jerome A. Holmes joined the opinion affirming dismissal of the case.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.

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Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights

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