Friday, September 4, 2015

Prisoner has claim for exposure to unsanitary conditions in jail

This case represents sort of a treatise on the rights of inmates. It also reminds is about the good, the bad and the ugly inside New York jails.

The case is Willey v. Kirkpatrick, decided on August 28. Willey is incarcerated at Wende Correctional Facility. He says he was punished by correction officers after he refused to provide false testimony about another inmate. The officers exposed plaintiff to unsanitary conditions of confinement. As the Court of Appeals puts it, "the most grotesque exposure Willey alleges is that officers placed him in solitary confinement with a Plexiglas shield restricting the airflow to his small cell and then incapacitated the toilet, so that he was reduced to breathing a miasma of his own accumulating waste." He was also detained in an observation cell whose walls and mattresses were smeared with feces and stained with urine. The officers also filed false misbehavior reports against him in retaliation for his refusal to rat out another inmate. The Second Circuit (Katzmann, Pooler and Carney) reinstates plaintiff's claims, as follows:

1. In excluding plaintiff from an in-house disciplinary hearing, the officers violated the Due Process Clause because he was unable to defend himself and call witnesses on his behalf.

2. The Court does not determine whether plaintiff's refusal to falsely implicate a fellow inmate was constititionally-protected speech under the First Amendment. The parties did not adequately brief this issue on appeal. The district court must take up this issue. The Circuit notes that Jackler v. Byrne, 658 F.3d 225 (2d Cir. 2011), a case I argued, might be relevant. In that case, the Court of Appeals said a police officer had the right under the First Amendment to refuse to file a false report at his superiors' direction.

3. The nasty conditions of confinement violate the Eighth Amendment. While prisons are not required to be comfortable, they "must provide humane conditions of confinement." Reviewing cases from around the country on this issue, the Court says that exposing plaintiff to human waste for at least seven days violates the Constitution. 

4. As for the other claims, plaintiff -- who says the bread was stale and the cabbage usually rotten --states a claim that his inedible food constituted a constitutional violation.The district court must also consider whether the officers' theft of plaintiff's legal documents in retaliation for his refusal to falsely implicate another inmate violated the constitutional right of access to the courts.

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