Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Second Circuit gives one to the inmates

Inmates have a little slice of constitutional law to call their own. If they are unfairly disciplined in the state prison system, the due process clause is there for them. These cases are not easy to win, but it's better than nothing.

The case is Davis v. Barrett, decided on August 7. Prisoners have a liberty interest in the disciplinary process. If an inmate does something wrong in jail (such as promoting contraband, insubordination, or ... you get the picture), he is subject to discipline triggered by notice of the charges and a hearing. These hearings are not exactly adversarial proceedings, but the inmate does have a chance to defend himself, although the hearing officer is allowed to use reliable informant testimony, usually accounts from other inmates who do not testify at the hearing.

The inmate can sue under the due process clause if the discipline "imposes an atypical and significant hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life." The Supreme Court devised that standard in Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472 (1995). The Second Circuit has held that "factors relevant to determining whether the plaintiff endured an atypical and significant hardship include the extent to which the conditions of the disciplinary segregation differ from other routine prison conditions and the duration of the disciplinary segregation imposed compared to disciplinary confinement." The reason the courts focus on atypical confinement is that inmate discipline usually involves solitary confinement, which can either be too long or too brutal.

In this case, the inmate wins the appeal. True, courts are reluctant to second-guess the decisionmaking of prison officials, particularly when it comes to discipline. But hey, even prison discipline has its limits! Plaintiff Davis was accused of extortion and fighting, and the hearing officer found him guilty, but Davis actually won his administrative appeal because of procedural defects in the hearing process. He sued in federal court under the due process clause because he was given solitary confinement for 55 days under questionable conditions.

The Second Circuit (Parker, Wesley and Cederbaum) reverses the district court, which granted summary judgment on Davis's claim. The district court erred in failing to examine the actual circumstances of Davis's confinement and to identify with specificity the facts upon which its ruling was based. In other words, the district court was too deferential to prison authority in ruling that Davis was not subjected to unusual punishment.

While the district court thought the confinement was not atypical or onerous, it failed to presume the truthfulness of Davis's account of life in solitary confinement, instead assuming that his confinement was consistent with the generally mandated confinement at the jail. In particular, Davis testified that, contrary to usual practice at the jail, he was kept in his cell 24 hours a day, denied any participation in the cell study program and denied commissary privileges. He also testified that he was subject to unhygienic conditions in that his food was kept on the floor for lack of any furniture, his mattress was infected with body waste and "his cell was subject to 'daily' flooding, and feces and urine thrown by other inmates." Fact disputes surrounding what Davis was subjected to in solitary confinement made summary judgment inappropriate. The case is remanded to the district court to conduct further fact-finding on the actual conditions of Davis's confinement in comparison to ordinary prison conditions.

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