January 29, 2021

Mother Secures Legal Victory on Behalf of Mentally Ill Son Who Endured 600 Days of Inhumane Solitary Confinement

VIRGINIA – After suffering for more than 600 days in extreme solitary confinement, a mentally ill Virginia prisoner has achieved an important legal settlement that awards him monetary relief and secured his transfer to a new facility closer to his mother and legal guardian.

“This is the start of a new chapter for Tyquine Lee and his family,” said Maggie Filler, MacArthur Justice Center attorney and clinical fellow with Northwestern Law School’s Bluhm Legal Clinic. “As a result of this settlement, Tyquine should never again be subjected to the damaging solitary confinement conditions he endured at Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison.”

In July 2019, Takeisha Brown, represented by the MacArthur Justice Center and pro bono attorneys from the law firm Williams & Connolly LLP, filed a lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Corrections on behalf of her son after solitary confinement led to his complete physical and mental collapse. During his confinement, Lee regularly spent 23-24 hours a day in a concrete cell behind a solid steel door. The rare opportunity to leave his cell provided only access to the showers or a recreation cage. He had limited access to a phone to contact his family.

During those calls, Brown struggled to make sense of her son’s increasingly disordered and incomprehensible speech. In order to visit Lee, Brown had to drive over ten hours to the remote part of Virginia where the Commonwealth’s two supermax prisons are located. There, she could only visit Lee from the other side of a plexiglass barrier and couldn’t hold his hand or give him a hug. Even so, his decline was evident.

“For over 600 days, he was locked inside a small cage, all day, every day,” said Brown, at the time of filing her lawsuit. “His bones stuck out; his teeth were decaying; his clothes were filthy. It’s horrifying. I’ll remember the sight for the rest of my life.” Brown repeatedly asked correctional officials at Lee’s prison to remove him from solitary confinement due to the obvious effect on his mental health. She was told that he would first have to comply with programmatic requirements, including a workbook series, which he plainly could not do in his mental state.

Ms. Brown remained a tireless advocate for her son’s release from solitary confinement. “Thankfully, Mr. Lee had crucial support from his loved ones throughout this ordeal,” said Matthew Underwood, an attorney at Williams & Connolly. “The successful outcome of this case would not have been possible without Ms. Brown’s perseverance and commitment over years of fighting for her son’s right to basic human dignity.”

As part of the settlement, the Virginia Department of Corrections agreed to transfer Lee to a correctional facility in New Jersey, not far from where his mother lives, and he will receive over $100,000 from the Virginia Department of Corrections.

“This is the second settlement we’ve reached with the Virginia Department of Corrections in cases in which we’ve alleged misuse of solitary confinement at Red Onion State Prison in just the past six months,” said Filler, referencing the case of Nicolas Reyes, a Spanish-speaking prisoner who spent nearly thirteen years in solitary confinement. “In both cases our clients will receive over $100,000. While no amount of money can approximate the harm they suffered, it’s important that VDOC recognize there is a financial cost to correctional practices that mental health experts and human rights advocates condemn.”

“I will continue to fight for justice for my son” said Brown. “I will be seeking a conditional pardon to bring him home. This justice system sent a mentally ill child to life behind bars. Yet, his co-defendants have served their time and are free men. That is why I am also fighting to take his case back to court. As his mother, as a woman of God, I just want to help him find justice, rebuild his life and give us both a chance at peace.”