Law school’s Civil Rights Clinic scores victory for prisoner in solitary
The Civil Rights Clinic at the Sturm College of Law emerged victorious Aug. 24 in a battle it had been read more…
The Civil Rights Clinic at the Sturm College of Law emerged victorious Aug. 24 in a battle it had been waging for years on behalf of Troy Anderson, an inmate at the Colorado State Penitentiary who has spent a quarter century in prison. Anderson has spent the last 12 years in “administrative segregation” — prison-speak for solitary confinement.
Over the past two years, students from the clinic have brought six claims against the Colorado Department of Corrections on Anderson’s behalf, mostly related to the extreme conditions of Anderson’s detention and lack of proper psychiatric care. (Anderson has a long history of severe mental illness, including bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.) Chief among the claims was that Anderson’s detention amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and therefore is in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.
In his verdict, U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson “held that it is unconstitutional for Colorado’s Supermax prison to continue confining our client, Troy Anderson, without access to outdoor exercise,” says Professor and Clinical Director Laura Rovner. “Anderson has not been outside for 12 years. We are hopeful that this will lead to Colorado ending this inhumane practice for the nearly 1,000 other men in the state Supermax prison who are similarly denied outdoor access, many of whom have been in these conditions for over a decade. The court also ordered that our client, who is mentally ill, be re-evaluated for the mental health care and medications he seeks.”
Anderson’s case was litigated by three generations of clinic students under the supervision of Professor Brittany Glidden — everything from the drafting of the complaint to the closing argument at the end of an eight-day bench trial in federal court. Both the students and Glidden earned praise from Judge Jackson at trial and from opposing counsel.
Katy Hartigan, a 25-year-old from Erie, Colo., was one of three law students who argued Anderson’s case in court last May. The seven-day trial was the culmination of a year’s worth of research and litigation, none of it easy or glamorous. Hartigan described how every few weeks, the students would pile into their professor’s car to drive two hours to the prison in Cañon City where Anderson was incarcerated. They would leave Denver at 6 a.m. to be there at 8 a.m., and would meet with Anderson for up to eight hours at a time, crammed into a tiny visiting room divided by bulletproof glass. With the court date just weeks away, Hartigan and the others spent their entire spring break in Cañon City, meeting with Anderson every day and prepping for the trial. Hartigan said building a relationship with her client was the most meaningful part of the experience.
“We just put people in a jail cell and forget about them,” she says. “This case humanized the issue for me — put a name and a face to it.”
Colorado has been credited with reducing the number and percentage of inmates in solitary confinement, though the state remains well above the national average. (As of June 2012, about 1,000 inmates, or 5.5 percent of Colorado’s total prison population, were being held in administrative segregation. The national average is 2 percent to 3 percent.) Nicole Godfrey (JD ’10), co-founder of the Colorado Prison Law Project, says cases taken up by the Civil Rights Clinic bring much-needed attention to the issue.
“Solitary confinement is so widely used, for such long periods of time, and often with no end in sight for the prisoner,” she says. “[The public] has no idea how isolated people are in prison.”
That may be changing. In June 2012, Rovner, who has overseen the Civil Rights Clinic since 2004, was asked to submit written testimony for a first-of-its-kind hearing on solitary confinement in the U.S. Senate. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., who chairs the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, where the hearing was held, has called solitary confinement “a human rights issue we can’t ignore.”
“There’s a momentum growing around the issue of solitary confinement,” Rovner says. “For the first time, states are seriously considering when, if ever, it’s appropriate to use solitary confinement. That wasn’t happening several years ago.”
For students, the Civil Rights Clinic provides not just a chance to impact the lives of clients, but a remarkable opportunity to shape state and federal policy on prisons and prisoner rights. Winning at trial is only the beginning; many of the arguments advanced by students in various prisoner rights cases have turned up in media coverage, federal inquiries and reports by human rights groups. Rovner says law students have become an integral part of a national dialogue on solitary confinement.
“We’re not the only ones working on it, by any means,” she says. “But I like to think our work has played a role in what’s happening.”