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$64,900 Award in Arkansas Excessive Force Claim; Warden Held Not Liable

by David M. Reutter

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a judgment against the warden of Arkansas’ Cummins Unit, finding he did not have sufficient knowledge that the guards under his supervision were inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on prisoners.

The appeal, by Warden M.D. Reed, was filed after an Arkansas federal district court held a bench trial and adjudged that prison guards Charlie Wade, Jr. and Kenneth Bell had inflicted cruel and unusual punishment upon prisoner Michael Lenz in the Cummins Unit’s isolation wing.

The January 24, 1998 incident began when several guards ordered prisoners to allow themselves to be handcuffed. Lenz refused. Wade, Bell and other guards doused Lenz and the rest of the prisoners with pepper spray. Lenz then put on the handcuffs. All the prisoners, except Lenz, were then taken to a shower area.

Lenz was removed to the captain’s room, which was an enclosed room without cameras. Once there, Wade, Bell and other guards beat Lenz, who was still handcuffed, and assaulted him with a shock stick. As a result of the beating Lenz suffered a locked jaw and a broken rib; he did not receive immediate medical attention. Warden Reed was not present during the assault.

The district court concluded that Wade and Bell had inflicted cruel and unusual punishment on Lenz, and Reed had exhibited deliberate indifference to their abuse. The court awarded Lenz $15,000 in compensatory damages, $10,000 in punitive damages, $36,562.50 in attorneys fees and $3,424.45 in costs. Only Warden Reed appealed the judgment.

The Eighth Circuit recognized that Reed had a duty to protect prisoners from a substantial risk of serious harm. There was no dispute that abusive conditions at the Cummins Unit posed a substantial risk of harm to prisoners at the facility. To be liable, however, Reed had to exhibit a sufficiently culpable state of mind, or be deliberately indifferent to those conditions. “This requisite state of mind is akin to recklessness, which is ‘more blameworthy than negligence,’ yet less blameworthy than purposefully causing or knowingly bringing about a substantial risk of serious harm to the prisoners,” the Court of Appeals held.

“A single incident, or a series of isolated incidents, usually provides an insufficient basis upon which to assign supervisor liability,” stated the appellate court. “However, as the number of incidents grow, and a pattern begins to emerge, a finding of tacit authorization or reckless disregard becomes more plausible.”

The Eighth Circuit found that Warden Reed knew of only one substantiated incident from 1996 in which Wade had used excessive force on a prisoner. As a result, Reed suspended Wade for a week without pay, counseled him and advised that a future incident would result in termination. While numerous other prisoners had filed grievances alleging abuse by Wade and Bell, Reed’s investigations determined those claims were unfounded.

Consequently, the appellate court ruled the evidence at trial was insufficient to “establish Warden Reed ever had the requisite knowledge or drew the necessary inferences to support a claim of deliberate indifference.” The district court’s finding that Reed had met that standard because he failed to provide Wade with anger management or other remedial programs before allowing him to return to work was determined by the Eight Circuit to be “fine tuning” of prison officials’ duties that was beyond the scope of the federal courts.

Accordingly, the judgment against Warden Reed was reversed. The damages, attorney fees and costs awarded in favor of Lenz, however, remained unchanged. See: Lenz v. Wade, 490 F.3d 991 (8th Cir. 2007), cert. denied.

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Related legal case

Lenz v. Wade