The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on Wednesday extinguished a prisoner lawsuit targeting over-detention in Delaware correctional facilities, citing a lack of evidence that state officials were deliberately indifferent to the “consistent problem” of delayed inmate releases.
In a precedential opinion, a three-judge panel of the appeals court sided with a lower court’s ruling that denied class certification in the case and granted summary judgment in favor of high-ranking corrections officials, who had moved in recent years to address the issue.
A group of four current and former prisoners who had been held past their scheduled release dates had filed a constitutional challenge in 2012, arguing that systemic over-detention of inmates violated Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The problem, they said, had affected as many as one-third of all Delaware inmates, and state efforts to combat it had fallen woefully short.
Officials in the Delaware Department of Correction have acknowledged high levels of over-detention in state prisons. Following the 2008 suicide of one inmate on the day he was supposed to be released, the DOC enacted a series of reforms, including the launch of a Central Offender Records office to centralize the processing of inmate releases.
Despite improvements to staffing, technology and training practices, problems persisted, leading the prisoners to file their class action complaint in U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware.
However, Chief Judge Leonard P. Stark in September 2015 denied class certification on commonality grounds and blocked the constitutional challenge on the basis that the DOC and its administrators had actively tried to remedy the situation.
On Wednesday, Third Circuit Judge Joseph A. Greenaway Jr. reinforced Stark’s findings in a 25-page opinion. In order to succeed on an Eighth Amendment claim, he said, prisoners needed to show manifest disregard for a real problem.
“Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to appellants, we could conclude that over-detentions are rampant in Delaware and that correctional officials are trying, albeit without great success, to tackle that challenge,” Greenaway wrote. “So far, this is not deliberate indifference. Appellants need more to rescue their claim.”
The case, captioned Wharton v. Danberg, was the first in the Third Circuit to challenge organizational policies contributing to over-detention. Up until now, Greenaway said, over-detention jurisprudence has concerned individual plaintiffs challenging decisions specific to themselves.
Still, the same standard applied. Greenaway noted that administrative systems of punishment carry an unavoidable risk for error, and the Eighth Amendment, he said, does not mandate the elimination of such a risk. It does, however, require a showing that state officials purposely failed to address the issue.
Greenaway cited efforts to build up COR in its early days, as well as a leadership mindset of “always looking at ways to be more efficient” in handling releases.
“These facts weigh heavily against any reasonable finding of deliberate indifference,” he said.
“Here, appellees have also taken affirmative steps to address over-detentions in the Delaware system and this makes a finding of deliberate indifference difficult.”
Judges Kent A. Jordan and Marjorie Rendell joined Greenaway in the opinion.
The suit named as defendants COR director Rebecca McBride and Carl Danberg and Robert Coupe, both former commissioners of the DOC. They were represented by Michael F. McTaggart of the Delaware Department of Justice.
Plaintiffs Phillip Wharton, Joseph Roundtree, James Maddox and Lamar Correa were represented by Stephen Hampton of Grady & Hampton in Dover.