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Claim of 'cruel and unusual punishment' gets Clayton Hanks his day in court

Clayton Hanks says he was tied to a restraining board to teach him a lesson.

Clayton Hanks says he was tied to a restraining board to teach him a lesson.

Clayton Hanks has had problems with authority for a long time.

The feeling is mutual.

In 1998, Duluth leaders debated making the skyways around the downtown Holiday Center mall private, off-limits to non-shoppers. Hanks, then 17, formed a group called the “Adolescent Union of Power,” which called for a boycott of the businesses involved. Closing the skyway to the public, young Hanks observed, “is not appropriate constitutionally and it’s not humane.”

Soon, Hanks had other legal issues to consider. His own.

That spring, Hanks was charged after he brought a pellet gun to a fight, shooting a little hole in a would-be opponent’s chest. (Another friend maced the same guy, who was “very upset” when cops found him.) Hanks pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to 36 months. About nine months later, he was caught escaping, adding another felony to his record.

To date, he has 13 felony convictions, most of them property crimes. In 2007, while serving time for burglary, Hanks punched another inmate, busting open the man’s forehead. Hanks signed a confession and accepted 15 days of solitary confinement.

Then he tried to recant. He suffers from mental illness, he argued in a court appeal, and accepting his admission of guilt denied him “due process of law.” Hanks said he deserved to be treated in a mental health facility or in another part of the prison.

He represented himself in court, and lost badly. The mentally ill are afforded no special rights, the court ruled, and the “25 pages of records” from Hanks’ various stints behind bars showed he’d received “extensive mental-health treatment,” the judges ruled. 

In fall 2013, Hanks was arrested for burglary, then a forged check. While in St. Louis County jail in Duluth, he phoned in a series of bomb threats to state agencies, then bragged about it to his cellmate, whom he also threatened.

Hanks pleaded guilty to it all, and was given a sentence of nine and a half years. But he again tried to rescind his confessions, this time arguing he’d been mentally unfit to stand trial. (Court evaluators said Hanks was “malingering”—faking his illness.)

His attorney countered by noting that he’d stabbed himself in the stomach with a pencil, requiring surgical removal, and threatened to go on a hunger strike, which he said would “make him superhuman.” Appeals judges were again unconvinced.

In the long line of complaints, appeals, and judicial rejections, perhaps nothing looked less likely to win in court than the handwritten paperwork Hanks submitted on December 2, 2015, when he completed a prisoners’ form complaint against the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

Hanks alleged that on Christmas Day 2014, a prison guard discovered that he had a wound on his arm, the result of self-harm. Hanks claims guards told him they were going to “‘teach’ [him] to ‘stop doing this shit.’” After a nurse cleaned and bandaged his wound, Hanks was stripped to his underwear and strapped facedown to a restraining board.

“They knew they were hurting me,” he wrote, “and enjoyed it in their own way.”

Physical restraint of the mentally ill has a long history—picture: straitjackets—but it’s fallen out of favor for one simple reason.

“It doesn’t work,” says Roberta Opheim, state ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities. “And in some cases, it makes people worse.”

It may prevent immediate harm, but it’s “dehumanizing,” says Michael Farnsworth, former medical director at the Minnesota Security Hospital. “The real issue is whether you tie someone down and keep them that way, for hours, as punishment.”

Hanks claimed guards left him tied down for “four or so hours.” The plaintiff had a hell of a case, but lousy representation: himself. So he filed a motion to get a court-appointed lawyer. Motion denied: Americans have the right to an attorney in criminal court, not civil.

But Judge Joan Ericksen did send the case to the Pro Se Project, a state program that matches self-represented people with lawyers. “Please understand,” Ericksen wrote in a letter to Hanks, “that this referral in no way guarantees that you will obtain counsel in this matter.”

For maybe the first time in his messy life, Clayton Hanks caught a break. Pro Se matched Hanks with two attorneys from Lindquist & Vennum, a hot-shot Minneapolis firm, the kind an indigent like Hanks could never afford, not even for an hour.

The lawyers took the case in late March, formalizing Hanks’ once-handwritten tale of woe into a firmly stated case of civil rights violations and “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The state has not denied Hanks’ claims. But the Attorney General’s Office argued that the 11th Amendment prohibits people from suing their states in federal court.

So the lawyers shifted targets. Instead, they sued nine corrections employees or contractors involved in the ordeal, with a separate claim against the department. Last Monday, Judge Ericksen greenlit the case.

One person who knows Hanks describes him as “brilliant,” the kind of guy who should be treated in a hospital. 

Clayton Hanks has done a lot of shitty things to other people and to himself over the years, and he’s confessed to most. Often, he’s complained about being victimized by a system that doesn’t look out for people like him. But this time, he’s not the only one saying that. And this time, he might just win.