Jerome Riddick was sent to prison for selling drugs in 2008. However, the nonviolent offender quickly found himself in solitary confinement for continually misbehaving. Riddick traces his acting out to mental health issues. And he says prison officials won’t offer treatment for his condition.
A team of pro bono attorneys from Day Pitney recently helped Riddick get out of solitary confinement and get treatment for his mental health issues, as part of a settlement to a lawsuit filed on his behalf against state corrections officials.
“This was a very tough situation and we are glad to have helped get it fixed,” said one of Riddick’s lawyers, Tom Farrish, who handled the case along with Jeffrey Mueller and Ben Nissim. “Prison officials have a very difficult job, and I don’t envy the decisions they have to make on a daily basis. But anytime a mentally ill, nonviolent offender spends nearly five years in solitary, something has probably broken down somewhere.”
Riddick has suffered from profound mental illness since childhood. Farrish said he was recently diagnosed by corrections health providers with bipolar, posttraumatic stress, attention deficit hyperactivity, antisocial personality and borderline personality disorders.
Riddick, 28, of Waterbury, was sentenced for seven years in 2008. He was sent to Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown, Connecticut’s principal prison for the mentally ill. Garner officials discontinued some of the mental health medications that Riddick had been taking before he was imprisoned, and his behavior deteriorated.
While there he had run-ins with corrections officers and other inmates.
On July 26, 2011, State Police responded to an incident where Riddick allegedly threw urine and feces at two corrections officers and spit on a third officer and a supervisor. He was charged with four counts of assault for the incident. A month before that, he allegedly assaulted an officer wanting to take his fingerprints.
Riddick’s lawyers said the additional charges have led to additional prison time for their client. He could remain locked up through 2019, they said.
Prison officials punished him for his outbursts with increasing severity, ultimately transferring him to Connecticut’s “supermax” prison, Northern Correctional Institution. Northern officials placed Riddick in what they call administrative segregation, a form of punishment that includes 23 hours of solitary confinement a day.
Mueller said such inmates have little contact with the outside world: one hour outside of the cell per day; a shower three times a week; one, 15-minute phone call per week; and meals served in their cells.
Farrish noted that it was rare for an inmate initially sentenced for a nonviolent crime to end up at Northern, which is generally home to the most violent criminals in the state. So Riddick himself handwrote a civil rights lawsuit on lined paper, contending that his conditions of confinement were cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
“He certainly was aware of the fact he had mental health issues and brought those to the attention of prison officials on several occasions, but he nevertheless didn’t receive proper treatment for those conditions, which is ultimately why he filed a lawsuit,” said Mueller.
In federal court, because of an abundance of claims by prisoners, there’s an initial review in which a judge evaluates a prisoner’s complaint before it’s served to the defendant. Most complaints are dismissed before a potential defendant even hears of it. Riddick’s claim survived.
“Riddick did a good job here to get by Judge [Stefan] Underhill’s initial review and survive,” said Farrish.
The Day Pitney lawyers then signed on to voluntarily represent Riddick in 2013. Things progressed quickly from there. A settlement conference was scheduled in Bridgeport before U.S. Magistrate Judge William Garfinkel. “The Department [of Corrections] of course did not agree with the premises of Mr. Riddick’s suit, but they acknowledged that it was a regrettable situation and worked hard to come up with a good resolution,” said Farrish.
Representing the Correction Department were Assistant Attorneys General Terence O’Neill and Thomas Davis. Dr. Craig Burns, the department’s director of psychiatry, also took a personal interest in Riddick’s case and attended the settlement conference.
Ultimately, the two sides agreed to allow Riddick to transfer out of solitary confinement at Northern and return to Garner, where he received a comprehensive psychiatric workup. “We believe this settlement represents a fair and equitable resolution to this matter and relieves the need for further litigation for all parties,” an Attorney General’s Office spokeswoman said in an email.
Mueller noted that while in solitary confinement, Riddick wasn’t even aware that the men’s and women’s basketball teams at the University of Connecticut won national championships. Once back at Garner, Riddick was able to have some knowledge of the outside world, the lawyers said. Riddick saw a little bit of the National Basketball Association finals on television.
“Hopefully, now he is receiving the mental health treatment he wasn’t receiving before,” said Mueller. “It was a very positive outcome for Mr. Riddick.”•