July 8, 2019

Mother Sues Staff at Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison After Son Placed in ‘Inhumane’ Solitary Confinement for over 600 Days

VIRGINIA – The Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center and the law firm of Williams & Connolly, LLP, filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) on behalf of a prisoner who was held in solitary confinement in Red Onion State prison for over 600 days. As a result of the extended isolation, Tyquine Lee suffered a complete physical and mental collapse.

“No one should be held in the kind of harsh conditions to which Tyquine was subjected,” said Maggie Filler, attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center. “That is especially true for people as vulnerable as Tyquine.”

The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, was filed by Takeisha Brown, Mr. Lee’s mother and legal guardian.

“For over 600 days, he was locked inside a small cage, all day, every day,” said Takeisha Brown, Tyquine’s mother and legal guardian. “They put him there – and left him there.”

During his confinement, Tyquine spent 22 to 24 hours a day in an 80-square-foot grey concrete cell behind a solid steel door. The rare opportunity to leave his cell was completely at the discretion of correctional officers. He received infrequent access to recreation and a shower, and limited access to a phone to contact his family.

“I told staff, ‘My son is deteriorating,’ ” said Brown. “The conditions he was kept in are inhumane. 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.”

Due to infrequent and inedible food combined with constant mistreatment, Tyquine dropped over 30 pounds.

Tyquine has suffered from mental illness since childhood, having been hospitalized several times prior to his incarceration. His mental history makes him extremely vulnerable to solitary confinement. Within two months of isolation, he began to exhibit symptoms of severe mental illness, including speaking only in numbers and losing the ability to sign his own name. During family visits, he could not even recognize his mother and barked like a dog.

“What happened to his mind is even worse,” said Brown. Before solitary, we spoke every other day. In solitary, he couldn’t speak except in numbers and gibberish. He couldn’t remember his own birthday.” Prison officials continually ignored his symptoms—offering him no mental health treatment. “Tyquine’s decompensation would have been obvious to all,” said Filler. “It is shameful that mental health staff and correctional officials left him in conditions so toxic to his wellbeing.”

By the time Tyquine was finally transferred to a different facility, he had lost all sense of his own identity, family, and present circumstances. Months after his release from solitary confinement, the most serious harms persist, including sometimes unintelligible speech.

“It’s not right,” said Brown. “As his mother, it’s unbearable to worry about him every day. He’ll never be the same again. But I stay in prayer – because that’s all I can do.”

This is far from the first lawsuit filed taking aim at extended solitary confinement used at Virginia’s notorious Red Onion Prison. Red Onion is designed to impose complete isolation, including placing hundreds of individuals in extreme solitary confinement. In September 2018, the MacArthur Justice Center and the ACLU of Virginia filed a lawsuit on behalf of Nicolas Reyes, who has been in solitary confinement for 12 and a half years.