By David Forster, LAW WEEK COLORADO
It’s cruel and unusual punishment to keep an inmate locked in solitary confinement for years with no chance to experience the outdoors, a federal judge ruled in a case brought by a Colorado prisoner.
U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson’s ruling on Friday applies specifically to Troy Anderson, who has spent the last 12 years in solitary at Colorado State Penitentiary in Canyon City.
But the judge acknowledged that his ruling might force the state’s maximum-security prison to change its policy for other inmates too.
The state penitentiary may be the only prison nationwide that does not allow inmates in solitary access to the outdoors, experts testified during the trial in May over Anderson’s claims against the prison.
Jackson ordered the prison to provide Anderson at least three hours a week of recreation “in an area that is fully outside and that includes overhead access to the elements, e.g., to sunlight, rain, snow and wind, unless inclement weather or disciplinary needs make that impossible.”
Anderson’s other principle claims were that he was not being given the proper medication to treat his mental illness and that the prison’s discipline system was arbitrary and offered little meaningful feedback. The combination of these things, he claimed, was making it impossible for him to progress out of solitary.
Jackson said he would not play doctor and order the prison to give Anderson the medication he wants. But he did order the prison to have another doctor see Anderson and recommend medication. Jackson also said that Anderson could not be denied medication simply because it is not on the prison’s approved list of drugs, or because prison officials worry he might abuse the drug or try to sell it to another inmate.
During trial, prison officials said they were making changes to the discipline and review process to which Anderson objected. Jackson said the proposed changes seem to address most of Anderson’s concerns and that the prison should be given time to implement them before he passes any judgment.
“It deserves to be given a chance,” Jackson wrote. “If it proves to be form over substance, Mr. Anderson knows where to find me.”
Although Jackson ruled against Anderson on most of his claims, he said that the points on which Anderson prevailed were significant enough that he should be considered the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees.
Anderson was represented by students at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law’s Civil Rights Clinic.
Look for a full story about Jackson’s ruling, with comment from attorneys, in next week’s issue of Law Week Colorado.