This case resulted in one of the most significant victories for prisoners’ rights in Florida, and allowed FJI to collaborate with the law firm of Holland & Knight, as well as Florida Institutional Legal Services. The three firms filed suit on behalf of eight incarcerated people with serious mental illnesses who were being sprayed with chemical agents (pepper spray) on a regular basis. After five years of litigation and a week-long bench trial in Jacksonville, the District Court ruled that it violated the Eighth Amendment to use chemical agents on an inmate who is creating a disturbance because of his/her mental illness, and therefore has no capacity to conform his/her conduct to prison rules at that time. The Court issued an injunction requiring intervention from mental health staff before chemical agents are used on such a person, which was upheld by the Eleventh Circuit. The case is Thomas v. Bryant, 614 F. 3d 1288 (11th Cir. 2010). After more protracted litigation, the Florida Department of Corrections agreed to pay $1.6 million in attorneys’ fees. This is the first case to require such mental health intervention under these circumstances, and has established precedent that will hopefully stem the tide of chemical agents being used against persons with serious mental illnesses.
The attorneys working on this case were awarded the Florida Bar Foundation’s 2008 Steven M. Goldstein Award for Excellence.