The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has affirmed a New Britain man’s civil rights were violated while he spent a year in solitary confinement in state prison, but in a split decision, has reversed a compensatory award of $62,650, citing qualified immunity for corrections officials.
The Second Circuit was unanimous in its Nov. 22 judgment for appellee Almighty Supreme Born Allah, who was placed in administrative segregation on two occasions in connection with separate arrests—the second time as a pretrial detainee. In an April 4, 2016, judgment at the U.S. district court in Bridgeport, Allah’s damages were determined to be $175 per day for 358 days of confinement that were deemed excessive and unconstitutional.
Stamford attorney John Morgan of Barr & Morgan, representing Allah pro bono, said the Second Circuit ruling is “unfair” and “a pyrrhic victory” for his client. “At this point, everybody agrees that the man’s rights were violated, but then he gets nothing out of the deal,” Morgan said. “I think the majority said that, notwithstanding the fact that my client’s constitutional rights were violated, the officers are entitled to qualified immunity under the limited standards of this case, because there had not been a sufficiently clear case which established the constitutional right.”
Morgan said he believes his client will want to continue to fight for compensation, and there will “almost certainly be a motion for further review” of the decision. “We have further avenues of appeal that we’re exploring right now,” he said. “Of course, [Allah] wants to see it through. This has been going on for a number of years, and we’ve got a federal court judges and three appellate court judges each saying his rights were clearly violated. At this point the state is getting off on a technicality.”
In December 2009, while incarcerated at Carl Robinson Correctional Institution in Enfield, Allah was charged with impeding order after complaining to a guard about the order in which inmates were being allowed into the prison commissary. The result of a disciplinary hearing was administrative segregation, starting in February 2010 and continuing until his release the following month.
Allah was arrested for a drug-related charge in New Britain in September 2010 and returned to administrative segregation—his most recent active status at the time—despite having returned as a pretrial detainee. He was transferred to Northern Correctional Institution in Somers, where he spent 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, showered three times a week in his boxers with his legs shackled and was limited to having five pieces of mail at a time in his cell. Allah was quoted in court documents as saying, “There‘s prison, and then there‘s Northern. It‘s just a whole different level,” which he said inflicted psychological trauma and left him with recurring feelings of paranoia.
U.S. Magistrate Judge William Garfinkel of the District of Connecticut noted that the conditions necessary to justify solitary confinement had not been met in Allah’s case. “Without any specific, individualized findings that Allah presented a risk to safety and security as a pretrial detainee, the restrictions as applied to him were excessive,” Garfinkel wrote. “Allah still enjoyed the presumption of innocence. Prison officials must recognize that a pretrial detainee cannot be subjected to restrictions and conditions amounting to punishment.”
The due process clause of the 14th Amendment specifically states that a pretrial detainee may not be punished prior to an adjudication of guilt. If administrative segregation is not related to a legitimate governmental objective (i.e., a safety concern), it may be deemed punitive. Corrections officials acknowledged Allah did not pose a security issue, leading the court to conclude his confinement was punitive.
Following the district court ruling in April 2016, Dan Barrett, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said the decision was an important one for the state as it worked to reduce the number of prisoners facing administrative segregation. “The Department of Correction is receiving a much-needed reminder that procedure matters and prisoners deserve a fair hearing,” Barrett said. “Pretrial detainees can’t be put in solitary for mindless reasons.”
In addition to the Second Circuit’s ruling being “pyrrhic” for Allah, Morgan noted, the win can be seen as somewhat hollow for the state, which was foremost appealing the ruling that Allah’s rights had been violated. Ironically, Morgan said, the ruling more firmly establishes that the state was in the wrong, and sets a precedent for future inmates to seek legal recourse if they are subjected to similar treatment.
The only party not eligible to recover damages is Allah.
Counsel for the state and the public information office for the Connecticut Department of Correction did not return calls seeking comment.