A federal judge on Tuesday ordered the Tennessee Department of Correction to remove a Nashville man from solitary confinement, where he spent nearly two years in an isolated cell without being convicted of a crime.
Alex Friedmann, a criminal justice advocate accused of concealing guns and contraband inside the Davidson County jail, won the ruling after suing the department earlier this year. Friedmann, awaiting trial, alleged his confinement in a cold, dark steel cell was unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw Jr. ordered the Department of Correction to immediately remove Friedmann from his "iron man" cell, the most restrictive holding cell in Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.
"The totality of the circumstances demonstrates Mr. Friedmann is suffering unconstitutional pretrial punishment because his solitary confinement is excessive in relation to its purposes," Crenshaw wrote in his opinion.
Crenshaw has not yet ruled on a damages claim. Friedmann alleged he lost significant weight, developed eye and back problems and suffered from mental illness during his lengthy confinement.
"Alex Friedmann has spent 21 months in solitary confinement in an 'iron man' cell," Friedmann's attorney Christopher Smith said by email. "He has not been convicted of the crimes charged against him. Today the Court recognized that these 'excessively harsh' conditions of confinement violate Mr. Friedmann's constitutional rights. We applaud the Court's ruling. As the Supreme Court once said: 'there is no iron curtain drawn between the Constitution and the prisons of this country.'"
In response to a Tennessean inquiry, TDOC confirmed Friedmann had been transferred to "another cell" but did not comment further on the ruling.
Friedmann was first arrested in February 2020, accused of masterminding an elaborate plot to stash guns, razors and handcuff keys in the Nashville's Downtown Detention Center during its construction. Authorities alleged Friedmann built a model of the center to practice on in his basement and had plans of the building when apprehended.
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Friedmann faces a bevy of state and federal charges, including felony vandalism. A federal trial on an illegal weapons charge is slated to begin in February.
Much of Friedmann's original complaint in the lawsuit focused on the solitary cell he was held in. The high security, restrictive cell known as the "iron man" is clad in steel plates, and designed with a small slit window. The steel, which retains cold temperatures, keeps the cell significantly cooler than other prison units.
"The 'iron man' cells are typically used to punish prisoners who commit serious disciplinary infractions or have serious behavioral problems; and the punitive nature of the iron man cells is widely known by RMSI prisoners and staff," Friedmann said in his complaint.
The Tennessee Attorney General's Office initially denied the cells are known or referred to as "iron man" cells.
But the AG's office also filed a monthly report directly contradicting its denials. A monthly status report signed by eight prison administrative and medical staff refers to Friedmann's cell as an "iron man cell."
In a scathing footnote to his opinion, Crenshaw admonished the attorney general's "iron man" denial.
"The Court warns Defendants there may be repercussions for future blatant factual misrepresentations presented to it," Crenshaw said.
A spokesperson for the attorney general's office on Wednesday did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
Though he's had no history of attempted escape or behavioral issues while in prison, according to court documents, Friedmann has been held in the cell longer than almost any other state prisoner.
Not yet convicted of the charges he faces, Friedman was housed in Tennessee's most restrictive cell under the state's "safekeeper" law. The law dates to 1858 and allows judges to order defendants into state custody if the local jails are "insufficient" to handle the defendant.
More: Tennessee prisons promise to stop placing 'safekeepers' in solitary confinement without review
A 2018 Tennessean and Marshall Project investigation found Tennessee had no formal review process to determine if and when inmates should be returned to their original counties. Then-Gov. Bill Haslam later signed a law banning the housing of juveniles awaiting trial in adult prisons and mandating regular reviews of all safekeeping orders.
Reach Melissa Brown at email@example.com. Mariah Timms contributed to this report.
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This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Judge orders Alex Friedmann out of solitary confinement in Nashville jail