Inmate Advocates Push Georgia on Solitary-Confinement Harms

ATLANTA (CN) – Two years into its legal fight over Georgia prison inmates who suffer for years in solitary confinement, the Southern Center for Human Rights laid out an expert’s findings about the practice in a letter to the state.

“The purpose of the letter was two-fold,” SCHR attorney Sarah Geraghty said Monday in an interview. “The first was to ask the department to reconsider its policy of releasing people straight from the Special Management Unit onto the street. And second, to restrict the department’s overuse of solitary confinement for people with serious mental illness.”

Dated July 31, the letter quotes expert witness Craig Haney as calling Georgia’s solitary-confinement system one of the most draconian in the nation.

The Special Management Unit at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison has 192 beds, and Haney toured the facility and interviewed inmates in October 2017.

“[The SMU is] one of the harshest and most draconian … facilities I have seen in operation anywhere in the country,” Haney said, going on to describe the prisoners as “among the most psychologically traumatized persons I have ever assessed in this context.”

SMU inmates are allowed to be outside in the yard twice a week where they must stand alone in a small cage, the letter states.

“Prisoners there are denied nearly all human contact,” the letter to the Georgia Department of Corrections states. “For between 23 and 24 hours per day, inmates in the SMU are confined to one-man cells with metal shields on the exterior and cell-door windows to prevent prisoners from seeing outside.”

Many prisoners in the SMU are approaching the end of their sentences and have asked the Georgia Department of Corrections to transition them out.

One of the inmates described in the letter is Daniel Barfield, who has been incarcerated since he was 13 years old with a 20-year sentence. Having been held in the SMU for eight years, Barfield seeks transfer to a re-entry programs so would help him acclimate to life on the outside. The SCHR says the Georgia Department of Corrections ignored his requests.

Representatives for the Georgia Department of Corrections declined to comment on the SCHR’s letter, citing a policy with regard to pending litigation.

A federal judge tapped the SCHR two years ago to represent inmate Timothy Gumm, but the organization is fighting now to have the lawsuit certified as a class action.

“We were appointed by the federal court to represent Mr. Gumm because his was among a number of pro se lawsuits in the same district court for the length of time people were kept there without any kind of meaningful review,” said Geraghty. “At the time he filed, there were 13 other pro se lawsuits challenging the same issues.”

Geraghty noted that Gumm was later transferred to a step-down program and now is in the general prison population.

While some states, such as Colorado, have eradicated solitary confinement, Georgia continues with its policy, with at least 39 percent of prisoners having a mental illness, the SCHR notes. Inmates in solitary confinement are there for an average of three to four years.

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