NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A longtime prison reform advocate asked a federal judge on Thursday to move him out of solitary confinement, claiming the punitive treatment violates his Constitutional rights.
Alex Friedman was arrested last year and accused of hiding loaded guns and ammunition in a jail under construction in Nashville. He was accused of gaining access to the new jail by dressing as a construction worker and stealing keys. Nashville Sheriff Daron Hall said during a news conference last year that he believed Friedmann was plotting a massive jail break. Friedmann has declined to comment on the allegations.
He faces charges of vandalism, attempted burglary, possession of burglary tools, and tampering with evidence, but he has not yet faced trial. Nonetheless, he has been held for 18 months in a state prison under conditions that are harsher than death row, according to the complaint.
In a letter to The Associated Press, Friedmann said he suspects he is being punished “due to my long-standing advocacy on behalf of Tennessee prisoners and my adversarial relationship with corrections officials.”
He notes that when he turned himself in, on Feb. 18, 2020, he was finalizing a settlement in a public records suit he had filed against the Tennessee Department of Correction. He also has testified before state legislative committees where he was critical of the department and private prison contractor CoreCivic, among other things.
Friedmann is housed in the most restrictive unit at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, where prisoners are kept in individual cells 23 hours a day on weekdays and 24 hours a day on weekends and holidays. They are supposed to receive one hour of recreation time on weekdays in individual outdoor recreation cages, but because of staffing shortages, lockdowns and other factors they usually go outdoors only two or three times a week, according to the complaint.
Within the most restrictive unit, Friedmann is housed in one of four especially restrictive cells, known as “iron man” cells because they are covered in welded steel plates, according to the complaint. They are painted gray with no shelves, mirror, stool or electrical outlets. The windows are a vertical slit less than 2 inches wide.
Because of his long confinement in the “iron man” cell, the lawsuit states, Friedmann has “suffered both physical and mental injuries, including weight loss of up to 40 pounds; vision problems; back pain; and depression.”
The suit calls it “an exaggerated response to any legitimate security concerns they may have related to Plaintiff’s incarceration at RMSI.” It notes that Friedmann was housed for six days in a county jail in a cell with several other prisoners. He also spent 14 days in the prison infirmary during a COVID quarantine, showing he can safely be housed under normal prison security conditions, the lawsuit argues.
The lawsuit was filed in the Middle District of Tennessee. It asks the judge to order that Friedmann be held with the general population or “similar, reasonable non-punitive housing.”
“I have been a strong advocate for prisoners for years, and a thorn in the TDOC’s side,” Friedmann wrote to The Associated Press. “Now they have an opportunity to exact revenge.”
TDOC did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday afternoon.