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Just because a prison inmate volunteers for a plum job, that doesn’t mean he can be forced to keep working if conditions are dangerous. The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals allowed an inmate’s civil rights suit to go forward Friday, ruling that guards who supervise voluntary work programs cannot claim qualified immunity when they order prisoners to use equipment known to be dangerous. The unanimous ruling rejected the summary judgment motion from a Washington state prison guard who was managing the prison print shop when an inmate had his right thumb torn off by a defective printing press. “Regardless of how a prisoner obtains his work, once he is employed and not in a position to direct his own labor, his supervisors are not free to visit cruel and unusual punishment upon him,” Judge Richard Clifton wrote for the court. Noticing that loose chains caused the press to buck and shake, the inmate, Steven Morgan, claimed he’d asked to have the machine repaired after it nearly tore off two of his fingers. Appellant Tom Canady, Morgan’s supervisor, allegedly told him to “just be very careful” and keep on working. Some time after that, the press caught his hand and tore off his thumb, according to allegations in the opinion. Morgan later sued, claiming he was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment and deprived of his liberty without due process, in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments. U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik of the Western District of Washington dismissed Morgan’s claims against some prison officials but allowed the suit against Canady to go forward, prompting his appeal to the Ninth Circuit. To prove an Eighth Amendment violation occurred, Clifton wrote, a prisoner must show he was forced to “perform physical labor which was beyond his strength, endangered his life or health, or caused undue pain.” John Dittman, an assistant attorney general in Washington, argued that Morgan couldn’t make that assertion because he had volunteered to work in the print shop. Operating the printing press was considered a desirable job because it required specialized skills and paid more than ordinary prison labor. Timothy Ford, Morgan’s lawyer, countered that all of Washington state’s prison inmates have to participate in some sort of prison labor program. The fact that Morgan chose to work in the print shop doesn’t make his labor a voluntary act, he argued. Along with Judges Stephen Reinhardt and M. Margaret McKeown, Clifton liked Ford’s reasoning better. “Morgan did not apply to work with a dangerously defective printing press,” Clifton wrote. Dittman had also argued Canady was entitled to qualified immunity that protects government officials from lawsuits, so long as their conduct doesn’t violate clearly established rights that should be known by reasonable people. But the Ninth Circuit rejected that too. Given existing case law, Clifton wrote, it should have been understood that compelling an inmate to operate defective work equipment could be cruel and unusual punishment. In an interview Friday, Ford said he took Morgan’s case partly because his Seattle law firm has been getting so many letters about injuries in prison industries. “I think it was getting to be kind of an epidemic problem,” said the MacDonald Hoague & Bayless partner. Another reason Ford took the case is that he’s a fan of the 1960′s rock band City Zu, for which Morgan once played bass guitar. The ex-musician went on to commit a string of robberies that ultimately resulted in a three strikes violation, his lawyer said. In addition to Friday’s case, Morgan v. Canady, 06 C.D.O.S. 9428, Ford is representing Morgan in a separate workers’ compensation claim. Dittman did not return calls by the Recorder’s deadline Friday afternoon.

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