Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Inmates have rights, too

Inmates have the constitutional right to out-of-cell exercise while in jail. The jail can restrict the inmate's exercise for security reasons. In this case, the inmate says that jail officials in Connecticut had a policy of requiring inmates with disciplinary problems to be handcuffed behind their backs during their out-of-cell recreational periods.

The case is Gardner v. Murphy, a summary order issued on June 2. The defendants tried to have the case dismissed on qualified immunity grounds, but the Court of Appeals allows the case to proceed. This raises my eyebrows since the Second Circuit has been dismissing many cases on qualified immunity grounds lately.

Public defendants are immune from suit if the law was not clearly-established at the time of the violation. You don't need a case on all-fours to show the law was clearly-established, but the constitutional violation must have been sufficiently apparent to put public employees on notice that they are breaking the law. Reviewing the case law governing inmate exercise, the Court of Appeals frames it this way:

Taken together, our earlier decisions have clearly established the right for inmates to have some meaningful opportunity for exercise unless the prison has a legitimate safety justification and has adequately considered feasible alternatives. The district court in this case defined the clearly established right similarly and therefore correctly stated “the level of generality at which the relevant ‘legal rule’ is to be identified.”
The question here, then, is whether reasonable persons in defendant's position would have understood that their conduct violated clearly-established law.For purposes of this appeal, the Second Circuit assumes there was no valid safety rationale to justify placing plaintiff in handcuffs during recreation time. In light of that, the Court says,

if it finds unpersuasive a proffered safety justification, a reasonable jury could readily conclude that a corrections official acted unreasonably by permitting an inmate to exercise only in restraints. After all, we do not see how a prison policy that required every inmate to remain in restraints during out-of-cell exercise could comport with the clearly established scope of the Eighth Amendment as to a particular inmate, unless there were a persuasive safety justification for that inmate’s restraints.

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