An inmate’s right to challenge what he calls deplorable conditions of confinement at the federal prison at Ray Brook, N.Y., has been restored by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
The circuit said that Ellis Walker, who claims he was jammed into a 174-square-foot cell with five other inmates for almost 28 months, can pursue a claim of cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.
Walker, the circuit said in Walker v. Schult, 12-1806-cv, "plausibly alleged conditions that, perhaps alone and certainly in combination, deprive him of a minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities," and that prison officials were "deliberately indifferent to this deprivation."
Judges Richard Wesley (See Profile), Denny Chin (See Profile) and Western District Judge David Larimer (See Profile), sitting by designation, reversed a decision dismissing Walker’s suit for failure to state a claim by Northern District Lawrence Kahn (See Profile) on the recommendation of Magistrate Judge Randolph Treece (See Profile).
Walker was placed in a six-man cell at FCI Ray Brook on Nov. 18, 2008. The cell contained bunk beds, the inmates’ belongings, two toilets and two sinks. Inmates were required to be in their cells each day from 9:15 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. and for two additional 45-minute periods each day.
Walker’s complaint in the Northern District, filed in March 2011, alleged "horrifying" conditions. He said there was literally no room to move in the cell, that there were "gang activities, violence…fights," and he was placed "in a situation to kill or be killed."
He said he got almost no sleep because of the noise and the fighting, there was urine and feces on the floor, and the inmates were not given sufficient cleaning supplies to keep the toilets or the cell clean. He also said the cell was freezing in the winter and so hot in the summer it was difficult to breathe.
But Kahn dismissed the complaint, and Walker, who had initially filed pro se, appealed to the Second Circuit with pro bono assistance of attorneys at Latham & Watkins.
Oral arguments were heard on Jan. 30, 2013. Chin wrote the panel’s opinion issued yesterday.
"Although the Constitution does not require ‘comfortable’ prison conditions, the conditions of confinement may not ‘involve the wanton and unnecessary infliction of pain,’" he wrote, citing Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337 (1981).
The government argued below and on appeal that Walker had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies and that the cell conditions passed constitutional muster. It contended that all of his complaints—including the unsanitary conditions, fear of violence and lack of adequate space—fell short of rising to the level of an Eighth Amendment violation. The government said an inmate is not at liberty to simply aggregate a collection of claims in order to allege a violation of constitutional rights.
Chin wrote that the standard for a showing that an inmate’s deprivation is so bad that he was denied "the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities" must show that the conditions "pose an unreasonable risk of serious damage to his health."
Walker had done just that, Chin said, as it is "well-settled" that exposing an inmate to extreme temperatures and depriving him of sleep can constitute cruel and unusual punishment, as can "unsanitary conditions in a prison cell" in "egregious circumstances."
"Indeed, unsanitary conditions lasting for mere days may constitute an Eighth Amendment violation," he said. "Further, the failure to provide prisoners with toiletries and other hygienic materials may rise to the level of a constitutional violation."
And the threshold for cruel and unusual punishment also can be crossed by conditions that place a prisoner at "substantial risk of serious harm," he said.
The district court, Chin said, had improperly judged the weight of the evidence and "failed to draw all reasonable inferences in Walker’s favor."
"Here," Chin said, "Walker plausibly alleged that the overcrowding and lack of living space in his cell were exacerbated by the ventilation, noise, sanitation, and safety issues, leading to deprivations of specific life necessities."
John Castiglione of Latham & Watkins argued for Walker.
Northern District Assistant U.S. Attorney Paula Ryan Conan argued for the government.
Ray Brook is a medium security prison in the Adirondacks. It was originally constructed to house competitors and staff for the 1980 Winter Olympics.
@|Mark Hamblett can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.