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July 3, 2019

Lawsuit states the incident violated numerous federal laws and state statutes that protect the disabled from discrimination

TALLAHASSEE, FL – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida and Disability Independence Group (DIG) filed a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) after an epileptic prisoner was beaten and put in isolation for seven months for an incident that occurred while he was experiencing a seizure.

Dean W. Higgins, 28, of Collier County, was admitted to DeSoto Correctional Institute in June 2017. On Sept. 27, 2018, while experiencing a seizure, it is alleged that he bit a prison guard. Despite documented evidence of Higgins’s history of epilepsy, prison officials treated the incident as a deliberate attack.

Higgins was battered by prison guards and then placed in isolation for the last seven months of his incarceration, first at the DeSoto CI, then at Florida State Prison in Raiford. While isolation is widely recognized as ineffective and inhumane, for a person living with autism, this type of isolation and abuse will have long lasting effects on his ability to perform daily tasks.

Accused in the lawsuit are Florida Secretary of Corrections Mark Inch, DeSoto CI Warden Mark Jones and four prison guards. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.

“Prison officials noted Mr. Higgins’s history of seizures when he was admitted to prison,” said Benjamin Stevenson, staff attorney at the ACLU of Florida. “Any alleged violations of prison rules were completely involuntary and brought on by his disability.”

The lawsuit claims the state’s actions violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including treatment by state and local governments. The suit also claims the state violated the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination based on disability in programs receiving federal financial assistance, which the Florida prison system does.

“He was treated brutally,” said Matthew Dietz at DIG. “Locking any person in isolation for seven months is inhumane. To do so to a person living with epilepsy and Autism, who may suffer seizures out of view of any other person, with no help at hand, is worse than inhumane.”

The lawsuit also cites Defendants also violated Florida statutes against battery; the Eighth Amendment to U.S. Constitution, which outlaws excessive force and cruel and unusual punishment; and the Fourteenth Amendment, which ensures equal protection under the law.

“It is clear that the Florida correctional system was, and is, incapable of properly caring for people living with disabilities like that of Mr. Higgins,” said Dietz. “In this instance, that system violated numerous federal laws and state statutes that protect the disabled from such brutal discrimination.”