Friday, June 28, 2013

Jailhouse hell-hole gives inmate a constitutional claim

It's been a while since the Court of Appeals resolved a case alleging that poor jail conditions violated the Constitution. These are not easy cases to win because jail is not supposed to be pleasant. But really awful jail conditions can give rise to a lawsuit. This one does.

The case is Walker v. Schult, decided on May 23. At the federal facility in Rye Brook, Walker shared a small cell with six inmates, some of them gang members who throughout the prison could not get along, resulting in fights, friction and creating a "kill or be killed" environment. There were all sorts of problems in the cell. No ladders to reach the top bunk bed, forcing inmates to risk life and limb as they climbed their way up. Cell mates were up all night making noise, leading to "hollering, screaming and sometimes fights," making it impossible for Walker to sleep. The cell itself was unsanitary, requiring toilet cleanings 15-20 times a day because human waste would splatter on the floor. There were not enough cleaning supplies for this. And, the cell was not properly ventilated; in the winter months, Walker froze. In the summer, he roasted.

Does this violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment? The district court threw out the case under Rule 12, but the Court of Appeals (Chin, Wesley and Larimer [D.J.]) reinstates the case. For now, Walker states a claim.

The Eighth Amendment requires prison officials to provide for basic human needs. The claims are assessed in light of "contemporary standards of decency." You can also aggregate poor prison conditions so that, as a whole, they violate the Eighth Amendment. And the plaintiff has to show that prison officials were deliberately indifferent to these conditions. Walker had to live in this overcrowded hell-hole for 28 months. Extreme temperatures in jail can violate the Constitution. So do conditions that prevent enough sleep. Of course, civilized sanitary conditions are also required. And inmates have the right to be free from a substantial risk of serious harm from other inmates. As the lawsuit also alleges that prison officials knew about these problems but did not give a darn, the lawsuit is reinstated and he may proceed to discovery.

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