Third Circuit reverses qualified immunity granted for Delaware prison officials
Court rules that seven months of solitary confinement for an inmate with known mental health issues violated the Eighth Amendment and clearly established law
Angelo Clark was an inmate at the Vaughn Correctional Center (VCC) in Delaware. During incarceration, he was treated for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder for at least 10 years. Prison officials were aware of Clark’s mental health treatment.
Following a mealtime incident with another inmate, Clark was placed in the prison’s Secure Housing Unit (SHU), where he remained for seven months. The SHU was a solitary confinement unit with narrow cells containing solid doors, two four-inch-wide windows and lights that were turned off from 11:30 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. daily. Clark was alone in his cell except for three one-hour intervals per week. Meals were delivered without human contact through a slot in the door.
Clark was not permitted to work, or participate in educational programs or religious services. He could have only four phone calls and four visitors per month. Clark would yell and bang on his cell door to get the attention of correction officers. Prison officials considered this conduct to be worthy of additional discipline, which resulted in extending his detention in the SHU.
The court described Clark’s SHU detention as follows: “For the seven months, Clark was trapped in a ‘vicious cycle’ where his mental illness would cause behavior that was punished by conditions that furthered his mental deterioration. Clark’s extended stay in the SHU worsened his mental illness and caused lasting harm. As a result of the isolation, Clark experienced “increased hallucinations, paranoia, self-mutilation, sleeplessness, and nightmares.”
Clark sued several prison officials, including Commissioner Coupe and Warden Pierce, pursuant to 42 U. S. C. §1983, alleging cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. More specifically, the court explained: “Clark alleged that – as a mentally ill inmate – the conditions of solitary confinement placed him at risk for serious substantial harm, and the prison’s practice of placing inmates with known mental illness in the SHU is done with deliberate indifference to the ‘serious mental health implications of long-term confinement in isolation.’”
The federal district court dismissed Clark’s complaint and ruled that the defendant prison officials were entitled to qualified immunity. The court determined that placing a mentally ill prisoner in solitary confinement for a long period of time did not violate clearly established Eighth Amendment law. Clark appealed to the Third Circuit Federal Court of Appeals.
The Decision of the Third Circuit
The court reversed the decision of the district court, denied qualified immunity for the defendant prison officials and ordered the lawsuit to proceed toward trial. 
The court began by focusing upon the two-part qualified immunity defense: “(1) whether the plaintiff sufficiently alleged a [constitutional] right had been violated, and (2) whether that right was clearly established … to the extent ‘that it would have been clear to a reasonable person that his conduct was unlawful.’” 
The court noted that the district court approved the defendants’ qualified immunity defense by ignoring part one of the qualified immunity analysis (i.e., whether there was a constitutional violation) and instead focusing solely on part two of the qualified immunity analysis (i.e., whether the law on the issue before the court was clearly established). 
The Third Circuit took a different approach regarding the qualified immunity analysis by determining whether prison officials violated the Eighth Amendment by placing a known mentally ill prisoner in solitary confinement for an extended period. The court observed that the “Eighth Amendment ‘prohibits any punishment which violates civilized standards and concepts of humanity and decency.’”  “The Supreme Court has interpreted this prohibition as ‘impos[ing] affirmative duties on prison officials ‘to provide humane conditions of confinement.’” 
The court determined that in order to establish an Eighth Amendment violation Clark was required to meet a separate two-part test by alleging that: (1) the harm he endured was “sufficiently serious,” i.e., confined under conditions creating a substantial risk of serious harm, and (2) the defendant prison officials had “ ‘a sufficiently culpable state of mind.’” 
The court explained that “[t]he second element is subjective and requires an inmate to sufficiently plead [that] prison officials acted with deliberate indifference.”  The court further explained, “Deliberate indifference is effectively alleged where an inmate shows officials knew of, but disregarded, that the prison conditions posed ‘an excessive risk to inmate health and safety.’” 
The court applied this two-part test to Clark’s allegations and ruled first that, if true, confining a known mentally ill prisoner in solitary confinement for a period of seven months created a substantial risk of serious harm to that inmate. Secondly, if true, Clark’s allegation that prison officials were aware that he was seriously mentally ill when ordering him placed in solitary confinement met the subjective state of mind requirement for an Eighth Amendment violation and amounted to deliberate indifference.
The court concluded by ruling that Clark’s allegations, if proven true, demonstrate that prison officials violated clearly established law. The court explained, “Long before Clark's stay in the SHU, Eighth Amendment law prohibited officials from recklessly imposing conditions carrying a known risk to a prisoner's health for no justifiable reason.” Moreover, “officials [allegedly] knew the risks the SHU posed to him as a mentally ill inmate but did not respond reasonably to ensure his safety. Such unexplained inaction in the face of a known risk has long been held violative of the Eighth Amendment.”
- Qualified immunity for public officials has two components: (1) Was there a violation of the constitution (e.g., the Eighth Amendment)? (2) Was the law regarding the alleged constitutional violation clearly established?
- Federal courts reviewing civil rights claims can choose to examine the second enumerated component first. In the absence of clearly established law on the presented claim, qualified immunity for the public official will prevail.
- For Eighth Amendment claims against prison officials, federal courts conduct a two-part analysis to determine if there is an Eighth Amendment violation: (1) Did prison officials place the inmate in confinement conditions that constituted a substantial risk of serious harm? (2) Were prison officials deliberately indifferent to this substantial risk of serious harm? In other words, were they aware of the serious risk of harm to the inmate but disregarded it and nonetheless placed him/her into dangerous confinement conditions?
- Placing a prisoner with serious known mental health issues in solitary confinement presents a likelihood of a judicial finding of personal liability for prison officials.
- Inmates placed in solitary confinement should be carefully monitored and evaluated regarding their mental health status.
- Inmates in solitary confinement who continually act out in rejection of their confinement situation should be examined by mental health-trained officials rather than simply disciplined for their repeated transgressions. Adding to a solitary confinement situation by extending the solitary time for each transgression, may subject prison officials to personal liability.
1. Clark v. Coupe, DOC Commissioner, (No. 21-2310) (3d Cir. 2022).
2. (Quoting, Williams v. Sec’y Pennsylvania Dep’t of Corrs., 848 F.3d 549, 557 (3d Cir. 2017)).
3. The Supreme Court ruled in Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223 (2009) that federal judges have a choice to juxtapose the order of reviewing the two-part qualified immunity analysis and begin with the “clearly established” analysis first. If the court determines that the law at issue was not clearly established, the qualified immunity defense will succeed without a decision on whether a constitutional right was violated.
4. Thomas v. Tice, 948 F.3d 133, 138 (3d Cir. 2020) (Quoting Young v. Quinlan, 960 F.2d 351, 359 (3d Cir. 1992)).
5. (Quoting Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832 (1994)).
6. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994).
8. (Quoting Beers-Capitol v. Whetzel, 256 F.3d 120, 133 (3d Cir. 2001)).