ABINGDON, Va. (CN) – A federal judge ruled that the Virginia Department of Corrections must face claims from an autistic man who says he was subjected to inhumane conditions while being held in solitary confinement for months solely because of his disorder.
Reginald Cornelius Latson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit last year against prison officials and state agencies, including VDOC, the Marion Correction Treatment Center, Rappahannock Regional Jail and VDOC Director Harold W. Clarke.
Latson was an inmate at the Rappahannock Regional Jail from April 2014 until his transfer to Marion Correctional Treatment Center two months later, according to the complaint originally filed in Alexandria federal court.
Latson says he stayed at the Marion Correctional Treatment Center for about eight months until he was formally pardoned by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
As a child, he was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, and intellectual disability.
Latson’s troubles with law enforcement began when he was 18 years old and living with his mother in Stafford, Va., he says.
In May 2010, Latson decided to go to the public library in Stafford County to wait for it to open, as he did many days, according to the complaint.
While waiting for the library to open, Stafford County Deputy Thomas Calverley suspected Latson of possibly carrying a gun. After determining that Latson was unarmed, Calverley began questioning him.
During this time, Latson says he felt threatened, panicked and confused, a common response for people with ASD who are in a similar situation.
In an attempt to arrest Latson for not identifying himself, Calverley was injured when Latson tried to move away “forcefully,” court records show.
Latson said the altercation with the officer and subsequent assault conviction “began a cycle of crisis, escalation, and punishment from which he has only recently escaped.”
Despite the fact that prison officials knew about his disabilities, Latson claims he was subject “to a series of inhumane conditions while he was held in the Virginia correctional system.”
Latson, now 24 years old, alleges multiple injustices during his incarceration, including a windowless jail cell with no mattress, a hole in the ground for a toilet, and lights left on 24 hours per day.
Latson claims there were extended periods without toiletries, complete isolation from human contact, multiple physical assaults and extended confinement to a restraint chair.
He also says he was placed in solitary confinement repeatedly, including one stint that lasted more than five months.
Latson’s nightmare finally ended when he was moved to a residential treatment facility after his story gained public attention and he was formally pardoned by McAuliffe.
According to court records, prison officials justified Latson’s harsh conditions by claiming they were necessary to protect him from the general inmate population or that Latson had to “earn” the right to have basic amenities through good behavior.
However, Latson said prison officials disregarded the impact of harsh environments on someone with ASD and intellectual disabilities.
Since being released from jail, Latson says he has developed post-traumatic stress disorder and will probably never have the level of independence he was likely to achieve prior to his time in the Virginia jail system.
In a 58-page opinion issued Thursday, U.S. District Judge James Jones disagreed with the state’s position that Latson failed to state an Americans with Disabilities Act claim since he did not allege that he was excluded from any services or treated differently from non-disabled inmates.
“[Defendants] appear to argue that Latson was not otherwise qualified because of his asserted disciplinary infractions, but that is a factual issue that is not properly resolved on a motion to dismiss. Whether the provision of certain auxiliary aids or services would be unduly burdensome is likewise a factual issue,” Jones wrote in the ruling.
Virginia had argued that Latson was disciplined because of misbehavior, not his disabilities. But Latson claimed his outbursts in jail were linked to his disabilities. He cited Drew v. Clarke County School District, a case in which the 11th Circuit recognized that aggression is a common symptom of autism.
Jones ruled that Latson’s allegations were sufficient for his Rehabilitation Act claim to move forward.
“Latson has alleged that his behavior was caused by and inextricably linked to his disabilities. He has alleged that the defendants severely punished him for what were essentially symptoms and manifestations of his disabilities,” the judge wrote.
Jones also disagreed with state’s assertion that Latson’s ADA and RA claims are barred by the statutes of limitations.
However, Jones dismissed the Commonwealth of Virginia as a defendant as well as the Marion Correction Treatment Center.
But defendants Dara Robichaux and Larry Jarvis, both of whom were wardens at MCTC during Latson’s incarceration, still remain defendants only in their individual capacities. VDOC Director Clarke also remains a defendant in his individual capacity.
The Virginia Department of Corrections did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment on the ruling.