When you hear the words “pro bono,” what do you usually think about? Most of us know that pro bono cases are those that are undertaken by lawyers for clients who cannot afford to pay. We usually attach a number of connotations to the phrase. Pro bono cases are for those who are taken advantage of by someone — renters, senior citizens, children, and even immigrants. But we usually don’t think of prison inmates when we consider the type of case that might warrant pro bono work.
But it was a Pendleton Correctional Facility inmate who won a massive $425,000 payout after prison staff left him in solitary for four years!
The case stems from a 2009 incident in which three men escaped from the aforementioned prison. Some officials believed that inmate Jay Vermillion had been involved in helping the escaped cons, and so they charged him with trafficking. He refused to answer their questions at the time — which it is his constitutional right to do.
Vermillion said that it was his silence that bought him four years in isolation — or 1,513 days in total. He quickly appealed the decision of prison officials. According to state law, he couldn’t be placed in isolation for more than a month. Margaux Auxier, a Department of Corrections spokesperson, said that, technically, no one is placed in solitary confinement.
Instead, she explained, they are placed in areas of the prison where they would be restricted from seeing other prisoners. Which, when you think about it, sort of sounds like solitary confinement. Since by definition it is.
Vermillion said he was kept in a “solid concrete tomb with a solid steel door for 23-24 hours a day.”
He wrote to a number of attorneys, all of whom either ignored him or explained that there was nothing they could do within the realm of law. But in 2018 the United States District Court in Southern Indiana requested that attorneys Alice Morical and Chris Wagner of Hoover Hull Turner Law Firm take the case. They said they would.
Morical said, “When we got involved, [Vermillion] had successfully gotten the case past summary judgment, and the court felt like it was a good time to have a settlement conference.”
After hearing Vermillion’s story, they quickly organized a pro bono blitz to serve the prison with the lawsuit that he eventually won.
Morical said, “They did an amazing job of working the case. They took depositions, got experts to provide expert report and really positioned the case well for trial and/or settlement. And at that point, when the case was very close to trial, they were able to get the case settled.”