A nine-member jury in Bridgeport ruled Thursday that Richard Reynolds — a Black man once confined to a cell for 22 hours a day, subject to strip searches when leaving his cell and prohibited from physical contact during any family visits — was entitled to roughly $863 in nominal damages for Department of Correction officials violating his constitutional rights.
Nominal damages are awarded when a jury decides that a plaintiff suffered a legal wrong but no serious financial loss.
The mostly white and male jury determined that three DOC officials — Angel Quiros, Edward Maldonado and Scott Semple — violated the Fourteenth Amendment when they enforced the statutes that fostered Reynolds’ confinement conditions.
In a 2019 ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Stefan Underhill declared that Reynolds’ conditions under state supervision were unconstitutional under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. An appeals court upheld the Fourteenth Amendment equal protection clause violation but effectively sent the other violations to trial.
The jury was tasked with deciding if there was a preponderance of evidence showing Eighth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment violations and whether those violations warranted compensatory damages.
Reynolds filed the lawsuit against the three defendants in 2013. While on death row for the 1992 murder of a Waterbury police officer, he was housed at the now-closed Northern Correctional Institution for more than 20 years. Both Quiros and Maldonado were wardens at Northern during the time Reynolds claimed his rights were violated, while Semple was the DOC commissioner.
After Connecticut abolished the death penalty in 2015, Reynolds was sentenced to life in prison — but his living conditions remained virtually the same. Underhill’s 2019 ruling ordered an immediate loosening of Reynolds’ confinement conditions — governed by a statute known as 18-10b — and prohibited the state agency from enforcing the statute.
Two years later, Northern was officially closed.
The weeklong trial, presided over by Underhill, largely focused on whether Reynolds’ conditions were inhumane relative to conditions expected in a maximum security prison.
Reynolds’ lawyers argued that his conditions made no sense for someone with minimal disciplinary infractions and who was described by people who interacted with him, including some DOC employees, as a “model inmate.”
The attorneys argued that Quiros, Maldonado and Semple ignored the human toll of the statute known as 18-10b, a law that holds that people formerly on death row must be held in “administrative segregation,” widely recognized as solitary confinement, until a reclassification process takes place.
But before and after the death penalty was abolished, Reynolds never had any meaningful process to establish that the conditions weren’t appropriate for him, his attorneys argued. The statute also didn’t require him to reside at Northern, they said, considering people who committed similar crimes were housed elsewhere.
Also spotlighted was Northern’s restraint policy, implemented by Quiros after a correction officer was assaulted in 2010. The policy mandated handcuffs, leg irons and tether chains for people on death row while moving throughout the prison. It was a punishment Reynolds did nothing to deserve, his attorneys told the jury.
Among the witnesses brought to the stand — including people formerly on death row and imprisoned at Northern who described it as a “modern day concentration camp” — was Martin Horn, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and previously commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction.
Horn testified that he has identified little to no correlation between people who are sentenced to death or life without parole and violence from those people while incarcerated.
He also said that Reynolds’ conditions constituted “extreme social isolation.”
And when taking the stand himself, Reynolds testified about how his requests — for fitness programs, for officials to implement a picture program where he and others could send photos of themselves to family members or for officials to allow more time outside the cell — were denied or disregarded. He highlighted how many of his requests, which were later granted, didn’t come until he filed a lawsuit and got legal assistance from Columbia Law School.
Reynolds also spoke about the conditions at Northern — including plumbing malfunctions that led to others’ feces in his toilet, and other incarcerated people “picassoing” their walls with feces. He told the court that he experienced mild depression and “wild thoughts” because of the isolating conditions.
“No good stimuli came out of Northern,” Reynolds said. “The only thing Northern offered was more bad behavior and more problems.”
Quiros takes the stand
Lawyers from Attorney General William Tong’s office argued that because Reynolds was able to routinely meet with his lawyers, interact with DOC staff members and medical professionals while they conducted tours of the death row unit, and communicate with other incarcerated people from the confines of his cell, his conditions did not constitute extreme social isolation.
The state’s lawyers also argued that Quiros, Maldonado and Semple did not invent death row, so therefore they had no personal involvement in violating Reynolds’ constitutional rights.
They contended that policies like 18-10b and Quiros’ restraint mandate were “reasonable correctional policy” to ensure safety. Connecticut was not the only state with a death row, they said, and other death rows across the country were “basically under the same conditions.”
“They’re civil servants,” defense attorney James Belforti said during closing arguments. “They have to follow the law as they understand it. He’s suing three men who did their jobs.”
Several witnesses, including medical professionals and former Northern employees who interacted with Reynolds, testified that he was respectful and responsive during their communications with him.
None testified that they had any reason to believe Reynolds was suffering mentally or physically — at various points deploying racist tropes historically used against Black people, describing him as “a physical specimen” and someone who “spoke well.”
Gregory Saathoff, a correctional psychiatrist and professor at the University of Virginia who visited Northern, told the courtroom he wouldn’t expect Reynolds’ conditions — 22 hours behind bars, two hours of calls and recreation time per day — to lead to detrimental mental health.
When it came to the conditions at Northern, Quiros testified that there were in fact occasions when people smeared feces on the wall — but that it was cleaned soon after.
He also told the court that he didn’t have the power to implement some of Reynolds’ requests. For instance, when he sent Reynolds’ request for a picture program up to DOC officials, Quiros said, they denied it because allowing the program could possibly “re-victimize the victim” if any photos surfaced on social media.
“As a warden, any changes … I was not the final decision maker,” Quiros said.
Maldonado testified that he felt Northern’s restraint policies were working. And Semple said that there was “no inkling” from him to change the classification system that kept Reynolds and others in isolation.
For Reynolds, outcome not just about money
On Thursday, the jury ruled that Quiros, Maldonado and Semple were liable for $286.66 in nominal damages each for violations of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. They also added an additional $3 for violations of the amendment’s due process clause.
Jury members did not find a preponderance of evidence for a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
The state is now expected to argue that the judgment should be overturned because the three DOC officials are protected by qualified immunity. If that takes place, Underhill would decide on whether to grant such a motion.
In a brief interview with the CT Mirror, Reynolds said he had “a good feeling” with the outcome of the trial and that he didn’t expect to receive any significant money. With Northern closed and people not having to experience gruesome conditions in the facility any longer, he said, the case was already won.
“I set out to try to change that, and I accomplished more than that,” said Reynolds, sporting a bald head, rectangular reading glasses and a gray suit. “If we would’ve been treated better, we wouldn’t have to go through this.”
His attorney, David Rosen, said the important takeaway from the trial was that the jury recognized “something was done to Richard that should not have happened.”
“This lays a little bit more of a pathway to just and humane treatment” Rosen said. “It’s important that the basic point of Richard’s lawsuit has been vindicated and upheld.”
Quiros, Maldonado and Semple’s legal team from Tong’s office declined to comment.
At the heart of the trial was Connecticut’s use of solitary confinement to punish people behind bars — though the DOC has said that it doesn’t, by definition, use the practice any longer. Earlier this year, Gov. Ned Lamont signed a law that limits the number of days a person can spend in isolated confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days or 30 total days within any 60-day period.
Although race wasn’t mentioned much during the trial, Connecticut’s Black men are disproportionately affected by prison isolation, making up around 53% of incarcerated people on restrictive housing status, despite being only 42% of the custodial population, according to a study from Yale Law School.
Race was also evident in the makeup of the jury — as seven white men, one Hispanic woman and one Black man decided the verdict. The trial took place in Bridgeport, which is composed mostly of people of color.