CONSTITUTIONAL LAW

Inmates • Conditions of Confinement • §1983 Suit • Eighth Amendment • Qualified Immunity

Thomas v SCI-Graterford, PICS Case No. 14-0290 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 12, 2014) O’Neill, J. (14 pages).

While awaiting a violation of parole hearing, Thomas was held on block E in a transitional cell block for parole violators, new receptions and inmates awaiting classification at SCI Graterford. He filed grievance letters concerning the conditions of his confinement and eventually sued correction officers, a unit manager, a unit counselor and multiple John Does alleging §1983 violations of his constitutional rights. Defendants’ motion for summary judgment granted.

Thomas contended that he was exposed to harmful prison conditions and that he was denied access to his attorney and the courts. He alleged that his cell had not been cleaned after the previous inmate vacated it, that he was denied cleaning materials, that his cell was contaminated by lead paint, was infested by biting insects and rodents that left fecal matter in his boots and bed linens and by black mold that caused him respiratory problems. He also asserts that he was prevented from showering and that he was denied the opportunity to call his lawyer and visit the prison law library in advance of his schedule parole violation hearing. The defendants did not contradict Thomas’ allegations regarding the conditions of his cell, his inability to shower and his difficulties in phoning his lawyer.

The defendants argued that Thomas could not establish an Eighth Amendment violation because the conditions of confinement he endured for constituted deprivation of basic human needs. They also argued that even though Thomas was prevented from communicating with his attorney by phone, he was able to communicate by letter, and he actually met with his attorney prior to his hearing. They also alleged that Thomas was denied use of the law library because he had not been medically cleared. The brief period of time Thomas stayed on block E mitigated against a finding of extreme deprivation and he was not exposed to any of the same conditions when he was transferred to another cell block.

The defendants also asserted qualified immunity from Thomas’ claims even if the conditions amounted to a constitutional violation because they would not have been on notice that he was suffering extreme deprivations and he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies before bringing his §1983 action.

Thomas filed two grievances, which defendants did not dispute were properly submitted. Where an inmate submits a grievance and does not receive a response he has exhausted his administrative remedies. Thus, to the extent Thomas’ suit included the complaints listed in his grievance letters, he properly exhausted his administrative remedies. However, to the extent he wished to litigate matters not raised in the grievance letters, he did not exhaust his available remedies.

Under the totality of the circumstances, Thomas did not identify conditions of confinement that amounted to a constitutional violation. Unsanitary conditions may give rise to a §1983 claim. However, Thomas’ allegations of the presence of mice, insects, and mold did not rise to the level of constitutionally impermissible conditions.

Thomas’ claims that he was denied access to his attorney and the law library did not show an actual injury sufficient to establish a violation of his right to access the courts because his parole violation hearing was not a direct or collateral challenge to his sentence nor was it an opportunity to challenge prison conditions.

Since Thomas was not subjected to unconstitutional conditions of confinement nor denied access to the courts, defendants conduct does not violate a clearly established statutory or constitutional right. Therefore, defendants were entitled to qualified immunity.