By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A divided federal appeals court threw out a $62,650 award that Connecticut had been ordered to pay a former inmate who said the state unconstitutionally kept him in segregation for 23 hours a day for nearly a year, though he was only a pretrial detainee.
By a 2-1 vote on Wednesday, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals chastised Connecticut for violating the due process rights of the former inmate, Almighty Supreme Born Allah, but said state prison officials were entitled to qualified immunity.
John Morgan, a lawyer for Allah, declined to comment, having yet to speak with his client. Jaclyn Severance, a spokeswoman for Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen, whose office represented the prison officials, also declined to comment.
Connecticut segregated Allah for 358 days in 2010 and 2011 in a high-security prison in Somers following his arrest on drug-related offenses, citing his involvement in an unrelated 2009 incident at another prison.
Allah was kept alone in his cell, sometimes known as solitary confinement.
He was forced to wear leg irons and handcuffs during his daily hour elsewhere, and limited to three showers, one phone call and one visit with a family member per week. Allah said he lost sleep, lost weight and felt paranoid as a result.
In April 2016, U.S. Magistrate Judge William Garfinkel awarded Allah $175 per day of segregation, saying the former inmate deserved a presumption of innocence but that his restrictions "smack of punishment."
Writing for the New York-based appeals court, however, Circuit Judge Gerard Lynch said prison officials were merely adhering "reflexively" to an established segregation practice whose constitutionality had never been challenged in court.
That made the line between right and wrong "a fine one that would not necessarily be apparent to prison officials," though Allah's treatment "cannot be said to be reasonably related to institutional security," Lynch wrote.
"Prison officials should be prepared to articulate actual reasons for imposing seemingly arbitrary and undoubtedly harsh measures on individuals who have not been convicted of a crime," Lynch added.
The dissenting judge, Rosemary Pooler, rejected qualified immunity for the prison officials, saying Allah's restraints were "without any justification" and therefore unconstitutional.
U.S. Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer pointed to the risks of prolonged solitary confinement in separate 2015 cases.
"Years on end of near-total isolation exact a terrible price," Kennedy wrote.
The case is Allah v Milling et al, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 16-1443.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)