Solitary Confinement

Filed - July 17, 2017

Sanders v. Melvin (Seventh Circuit)


Prior to being incarcerated, Mr. Sanders was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. In prison, he was designated Seriously Mentally Ill. Nevertheless, for nearly ten years, Mr. Sanders was held in solitary confinement. As a result, his mental health deteriorated, he self-mutilated, and he attempted suicide. In 2016, Mr. Sanders filed a pro se lawsuit in which he alleged that solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment. Indigent prisoners are allowed to bring federal cases without prepaying the full filing fee. However, Mr. Sanders had three strikes for filing prisoners’ rights cases that were ultimately dismissed and, accordingly, was barred by federal statute from bringing another without paying hundreds of dollars unless he was in imminent danger of serious physical injury. The trial court determined that our client was not in imminent danger, notwithstanding the fact that solitary confinement caused him to self-mutilate. Self-harm was a conscious decision and thus did not satisfy the three-strikes exception, the trial court determined.

With Kirkland & Ellis as co-counsel, we challenged that decision in the Seventh Circuit, arguing that our client’s prolonged solitary confinement satisfied the imminent danger exception regardless of whether his self-harm was volitional. In an opinion authored by Judge Easterbrook, the Seventh Circuit reversed.

As the court explained:

When the prospect of self-harm is a consequence of the condition that prompted the suit, a court should treat the allegation (if true) as imminent physical injury. And this is the kind of allegation Sanders has advanced. He contends that solitary confinement not only is injurious by itself but also causes prisoners to lose the benefit of mental-health care, and that only self-mutilation (or a credible threat of self-mutilation) restores that care. That Sanders makes a choice in this process does not negate the possibility that the complained-of conduct forced this choice on him as the lesser evil.