Thursday, January 14, 2021

Oneida County Jail's unequal treatment of female inmates may violate Constitution

This case alleges that the Oneida County Jail is violating the Constitution by placing women in inferior cells that do not compare with the roomier and living conditions enjoyed by male inmates. The district court denied the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction, but the Court of Appeals reverses and returns the case to the district court to reconsider the case.

The case is Williamson v. Maciol, a summary order issued on January 11. In January 2020, all female inmates were moved to housing units that are smaller than the units they were previously living in. Since plaintiffs claim this new living arrangement denied them access to certain privileges and programs, they argue that this treatment violates the Equal Protection Clause, which applies in the jail context, though courts will defer to the judgment of jail officials in how to manage their inmates. 

But deference is not a rubber-stamp. While the district court said that plaintiffs cannot show these women did not receive substantially equivalent treatment to the man, the Court of Appeals (Kearse, Livingston and Sullivan) is not so sure about this. 

The record is clear that a cell in the linear housing units is half the size of a cell in the pods, lacks a window to the outdoors, and has bars, rather than a door with a small window, at the front of the cell, which arguably diminishes privacy. Moreover, the roomy common areas available in pods likewise contrast sharply with the six-foot-wide corridor where  inmates  can  gather  in  linear  housing  units.  Making  matters  worse,  female  inmates  are provided with only two hours of outside recreation while comparable male inmates receive up to six, depending on the number of men who wish to avail themselves of the outdoor space. Further development of the record may demonstrate that Plaintiffs are indeed treated equally based on a full  assessment  of  the  benefits  and  drawbacks  of  the  different  housing  units.  Absent  more, however, the present record does not support a denial of relief on the ground that Plaintiffs failed to show the required difference in treatment.
To avoid liability, the County has to show that this unequal treatment is justified by a substantial reason. We call that "intermediate scrutiny," giving jail officials some leeway to manage their affairs but also protecting the rights of these inmates, many of whom were probably not yet convicted of anything since this is a county jail. The district court said that a Chief Deputy's affidavit satisfied intermediate scrutiny because he said that it's harder to manage inmates when the housing units are less populated. The Court of Appeals wants to district court to take another look at this issue. It seems counterintuitive to believe that it's harder to manage fewer inmates. The appellate court thinks the Chief Deputy's affidavit is not specific enough about why this unequal treatment is necessary. 

The case heads back to the district court so the County can further develop this record, with a warning from the Court of Appeals that "Defendants must explain to the reviewing court why it would be more difficult to provide Plaintiffs with equal treatment and must assure the district court that these are not post hoc (or after-the-fact) rationalizations."

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