Prison reform advocate settles solitary confinement suit

Alex Friedmann claimed he was being punished for his years of advocacy on behalf of prisoners prior to his arrest


By TRAVIS LOLLER
Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A longtime prison reform advocate has agreed to a settlement with Tennessee prison officials over their use of solitary confinement for pretrial detainees.

Alex Friedmann sued the Tennessee Department of Correction last year, complaining that he was being housed in one of the most restrictive cells in the most restrictive unit of the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, despite the fact that he had not yet been convicted of a crime. The walls of the “hardened” cell where Friedmann was housed for almost two years are covered in steel plates. It has no shelves, mirror, stool or electrical outlets, and the window is a vertical slit less than 2 inches wide. Friedmann claimed he was being punished for his years of advocacy on behalf of prisoners prior to his arrest.

FILE - Alex Friedmann, a prison reform advocate, stands in the office of his attorney in Nashville, Tenn., on Feb. 19, 2008. Friedmann has agreed to a settlement, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, with Tennessee prison officials over their use of solitary confinement for pretrial detainees. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)
FILE - Alex Friedmann, a prison reform advocate, stands in the office of his attorney in Nashville, Tenn., on Feb. 19, 2008. Friedmann has agreed to a settlement, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, with Tennessee prison officials over their use of solitary confinement for pretrial detainees. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File) (Mark Humphrey)

Friedmann was at Riverbend under a “safekeeper” order that allows certain pretrial inmates to be housed at a state prison, rather than a local jail, for reasons that include security concerns. Although not all safekeeper inmates are placed in the hardened cells, it was the Correction Department policy to place them all in the prison's most restrictive unit, where inmates are kept in individual cells 23-24 hours a day.

A federal judge ordered prison officials to move Friedmann out of solitary confinement last November. As part of an interim agreement, he was housed in a lower security unit where he could spend more time outside of his cell and have more contact with other inmates. In an agreement filed on Friday to settle the lawsuit, prison officials agreed to a series of policy changes. Friedmann said in a written statement that he waived monetary damages in favor of the changes. They are to be implemented no later than Oct. 31.

According to the settlement, prison officials will house safekeeper inmates based on an individualized assessment, like other inmates. Safekeepers will also have the opportunity to participate in their housing classification hearings and appeal classification decisions. If a safekeeper is placed in a hardened cell, as Friedmann was, that placement must be reviewed every 30 days, and the inmate can appeal the decision.

In addition, a regular inmate who is placed in one of the hardened cells — known as “iron man” cells by staff and inmates — will have the ability to file a grievance over that placement.

In a written statement released on Monday, Friedmann said the living conditions in the hardened cells are “barbaric.”

“No civilized corrections system should hold people under such conditions unless absolutely necessary, and then for longer than absolutely necessary,” he said. Friedmann noted that there are still no policies for determining when prisoners are placed in the hardened cells or for how long.

Friedmann was designated a safekeeper after he was arrested in 2020 for hiding three handguns, ammunition, handcuff keys and hacksaw blades inside the walls of Nashville's new jail during construction. He was convicted in July and is scheduled to be sentenced on Thursday.

Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall, who oversees the jail, has suggested that Friedmann was planning a massive jailbreak, calling his actions “evil." Friedmann did not testify at his trial and investigators found no explanation for his actions in a search of his home, but in a letter to the sentencing judge, Friedmann attributed them to a mental breakdown.

Friedmann said he was gang raped in the old Nashville jail as an 18-year-old when he was arrested for armed robbery in 1987. In 2018, before the new jail was built, he was allowed to tour the old jail as the managing editor of “Prison Legal News.” Seeing the cell where he was raped caused nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacks. He hid guns and escape kits throughout the new jail in an irrational attempt to combat his fear, according to the letter.

The sentencing memorandum from Friedmann's attorney asks for leniency.

“Mr. Friedmann acknowledges that many people may not understand his explanation for his conduct because it is admittedly not rational or reasonable,” the memorandum states. “But this Court should consider that it does fall within recognized patterns of trauma responses, albeit in an unusual and extreme manner.”

It points out that in Friedmann’s two decades as a prison reform advocate, he worked entirely within traditional political and legal means. He also never targeted the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office and even advocated for them to take over housing inmates at a facility that had been under contract to private prison operator CoreCivic.

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