ATLANTA — Georgia's most restrictive solitary confinement facility deprives prisoners of basic human needs and risks causing them psychological harm, according to an expert report filed in federal court.
The report was filed under seal as part of an ongoing challenge to the conditions in the Special Management Unit of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson. A redacted version accessible to the public was filed Tuesday.
The unit "so severely and completely deprives prisoners of meaningful social contact and positive environmental stimulation that it puts them at significant risk of very serious psychological harm," University of California, Santa Cruz psychology professor Craig Haney wrote. "That psychological harm may be irreversible and even fatal."
Haney, who has toured maximum-security prisons in about two-dozen states as well as federal maximum-security facilities, writes that the unit is "one of the harshest and most draconian" he has seen.
Haney visited the Georgia SMU in October and did cell-front interviews with some prisoners and more in-depth, confidential interviews with 11 of them. His report includes harrowing details of prisoners harming themselves: cutting themselves, trying to hang themselves, eating feces and drinking urine.
The Southern Center for Human Rights filed a motion last week asking the judge to order prison officials to improve the conditions immediately. It's accompanied by statements from 25 prisoners who are held there currently or have been previously.
The state has said in court filings that the prisoners haven't been deprived of any rights protected by state or federal law.
Lawyers for the prisoners have been talking with Georgia Department of Corrections officials about making improvements and are hopeful positive steps will be taken, but they were concerned about the slow pace of change, Southern Center managing attorney Sarah Geraghty said in a phone interview Monday.
Inmate Timothy Gumm, 42, has been in prison since 1995 serving a life sentence for rape. He filed the initial lawsuit on his own in 2015. The Southern Center took up his case in 2016 and expanded it into a class-action lawsuit.
Gumm was put in the SMU in January 2010 after he was accused of trying to escape from Telfair State Prison. That disciplinary report was quickly expunged, but he remained in SMU until July 2017, he said in a statement filed with the motion.
The SMU is divided into six wings, A through F, that correspond to a three-tier program. Prisoners begin in the lowest wing and are supposed to spend about 90 days in each before moving up to the next, the motion says. That would mean they could get through all six in about 18 months and, ultimately, be moved to another prison.
But many languish in the SMU for years, facing arbitrary barriers to advancement and the possibility of being transferred to the lowest wing to start over for any perceived misconduct, the motion says.
The 192 cells measure about 6 feet by 9 feet. The solid metal doors have a small glass window with a sliding cover. Guards pass meals through a slot. A small exterior window at the back of each cell is covered by a shield.
In the most restrictive wings, prisoners can't have books or other distractions and take showers in their cells, where they remain locked 24 hours a day five to seven days a week, the motion says. Out-of-cell recreation is limited and happens in small metal cages outside, it says.
Haney noted particular problems with E Wing, which he described as chaotic and out-of-control. Upon entering, he was "met with a cacophony of prisoner screams and cries for help," he wrote.
One prisoner was hanging bloody pieces of toilet paper on the door flap, Haney wrote. The man told Haney he'd tried to kill himself by cutting himself the day before and was taken to the hospital only to be returned to his bloody cell with an open gash on his arm.
Haney noted a "shockingly high number" of mentally ill prisoners in the SMU.
There is growing national and international consensus that solitary confinement is harmful and should be used only as a last resort, for the shortest amount of time possible and never for vulnerable groups such as people with mental illness, Haney wrote. The harsh conditions, practices and policies of the Georgia SMU appear to violate that, he concluded.
The motion asks the judge to order prison officials to allow SMU prisoners out of their cells for at least three hours a day, to plan meaningful activities and social interaction, and to evaluate all SMU prisoners and promptly transfer any prisoners with mental illness out of the unit.