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Status of Monroe's Litigation Against Double Bunking

By Ed Mead

Bob Stalker, the Washington state attorney for Monroe prisoners on their suit against double bunking, recently visited that prison to discuss the current status of the Litigation with inmate club heads and the Resident advisory Council (RAG). The meeting lasted for approximately two hours, during which Mr. Stalker explained the current legal position and discussed strategies.

In January the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision making it easier for states to set aside or modify consent decrees, but the new ruling was not nearly as bad for prisoners as it could have been. Stalker said that although our legal position is now worse than it was before the high court's ruling, we are still in pretty good legal shape. Where before prisoners had something in the neighborhood of an 80 or 90 percent chance of success, he said the odds of prevailing are currently around 60 to 70 percent in the U.S. district court, and a bit less than that on any appeal to the court of appeals.

The club heads and RAC voted unanimously to have Mr. Stalker continue with the legal struggle to defend the consent decree against further state encroachment. Mr. Stalker said that prison officials will not attempt to double cell the institution in the absence of a court order authorizing them to do so.

While it is more likely than not that we will win, at least in the short term, if the courts do happen to go against us it will not be anything immediate. Regardless of the outcome, the legal process will take a considerable amount of time to unfold. A good guess would be six months to a year, although it could of course be longer or shorter than that. The bottom line is that we have a good chance of prevailing and even if we do ultimately lose it will not happen immediately.

The new ruling is Rufo v. Inmates of Suffolk County jail, which was decided on January 15th. What does the court have to say about modifying consent decrees? In essence the court held:

"[t]hat a party may obtain relief from a court order when 'it is no longer equitable that the judgment should have prospective application,' not when it is no longer convenient to live with the terms of a consent decree. Accordingly, a party seeking modification of a consent decree bears the burden of establishing that a significant change in circumstances warrants revision of the decree.

If it is clear that a party anticipated changing conditions that would make performance of the decree more onerous but nevertheless agreed to the decree, that party would have to satisfy a heavy burden to convince a court that it agreed to the decree in good faith, made a reasonable effort to comply with the decree, and should be relieved of the undertaking."

Like the state of Washington has been doing in the Monroe case, the sheriff in Rufo v. Inmates argued that the court was required to modify the consent decree because: "The constitutional violation underlying the decree has disappeared and will not recur and that no constitutional violation is even alleged at the new jail, so there is no constitutional violation to serve as a predicate for the federal court's continued exercise of its equitable power." The court replied by saying: "His argument is not well taken." It was this aspect of the case, the possible need to actually demonstrate the existence of a continuing constitutional violation, that had some prisoners so concerned about the Rufo case. The court's clear rejection of that line of argument made a big difference in the outcome and the case's probable impact on prisoners at Monroe. Moreover, in an even later case, the Supreme Court refused to overturn a lower court's refusal to set aside a consent decree entered into between San Quentin officials and prisoners, saying the likelihood of the prison officials repeating the prohibited conduct was great. In the Monroe case, the likelihood of the administration double bunking prisoners in the event the decree is set aside is almost certain. They've made no attempt to conceal their intentions in this regard.

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