A 28-year-old former Florida inmate with a history of epilepsy says he was beaten and thrown in solitary confinement for seven months after he involuntarily bit a correctional officer while having a seizure.
In a federal civil rights lawsuit filed last month and first reported by The Miami Herald, Dean Higgins claims he suffered a grand mal seizure last September at the Florida Department of Corrections’ (FDOC) Desoto Correctional Institution. While the guards tried to restrain Higgins—an improper way to handle someone having a seizure—he bit one of the guards on the arm.
Higgins, who was serving two years in Florida state prison for lewd and lascivious conduct, claims he was then beaten and punished by being placed in solitary confinement for more than seven months in a tiny cell. “Sewage would backup in the units and raw sewage would seep into Higgins’ cell, at times a number of inches deep,” the suit says.
Higgins’ lawsuit alleges he was subjected to excessive force and battery, and that the conditions of his confinement amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and violations of his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). According to the suit, in addition to having epilepsy, Higgins is also on the autism spectrum.
“A person might be arrested for treating a dog like this,” Benjamin Stevenson, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney representing Higgins, told the Herald.
The FDOC declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. However, lawyers for the FDOC denied Higgins’ allegations in a reply to his complaint. According to the department narrative, correctional officers suspected Higgins was having an adverse drug reaction to “spice,” or synthetic marijuana, a common drug in prisons across the country.
Although FDOC policy requires correctional officers to turn on their body cams during use-of-force incidents as soon as possible, the FDOC admitted in its reply that body camera footage only began 38 minutes after the incident started and “that there was an approximately eight-minute interruption to change batteries.”
The lawsuit comes as the FDOC is fighting another class-action lawsuit—brought the Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida Legal Services, and the Florida Justice Institute—challenging the state’s use of prolonged solitary confinement on inmates.
“There’s a growing scientific and community consensus that solitary confinement amounts to torture—mostly psychologically, but also for physical issues as well,” says Dante Trevisani, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute. “When you deprive people of like basic human contact, it can be very devastating for them. That’s especially true with people who have existing mental illness, or have other disabilities, or are pregnant or juveniles.”