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Floor-Sleeping at Los Angeles County Jail Ruled Unconstitutional

by John E. Dannenberg

On September 21, 2007, a California U.S. District Court granted summary judgment in favor of a class of prisoners who had been required to sleep on the floor of the Los Angeles County Jail (“Jail”) between December 18, 2002 and May 17, 2005, ruling that such conditions of confinement constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

The class also included prisoners who were incarcerated between December 18, 2000 and December 17, 2002 who remained at the Jail until at least December 18, 2002.
The principal defendant in the suit was Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca, who was sued in both his individual and official capacities. The district court granted Baca’s motion for qualified immunity as to his individual liability.

The class of prisoners is potentially huge. Jail records indicate that in just a four-month period, 24,000 prisoners had slept on the floor. Captain John Clark at the Men’s Central Jail testified that at that facility alone, prisoners housed on the floor numbered as high as 500. Class members who were pre-trial detainees (and thus should have enjoyed even greater protections under the 14th Amendment because they were presumptively not guilty) were represented by lead plaintiff E.L. Gipson, a frequent patron of the Jail, who described some of his experiences.

On one occasion, Gipson was placed for 48 hours in a holding cell with 200 other prisoners; the cell had bench space for 200 people to sit, but nowhere for them to sleep. Everyone was forced to lie on the cement floor to get any rest. He was then moved to a 10x20 foot cell, where everybody huddled on the floor “like snakes” when they tried to sleep. After a few hours he was moved to a third cell, identical to the first, for another 48 hours. When Gipson was finally assigned to a module he was put in a day room, again without a bunk. The only space available to place his mattress was under a staircase.

On another occasion he was forced to sleep on the floor of a shower with 60 other prisoners. In 2004, Gipson was the seventh man in a six-man cell and had to sleep on the floor “on a wet mattress by the toilet.” He described in detail the psychological and physical pain of being in such conditions, including the staph infection on his heel that he contracted from standing in polluted water on the floor of the cell where he was supposed to sleep.

Prisoner S.A. Thomas, a lead plaintiff for the post-conviction class members, described mattresses on the floor of a dayroom placed just 10 inches apart. The only space available for his mattress was under a stairwell leading to a housing unit for suicidal prisoners. Thomas alleged that he developed chronic back and shoulder pain from sleeping on the floor.

The district court found that Baca’s custom of requiring prisoners to sleep on the floor, while not a written Jail “policy,” was a sufficient deviation from “the minimal civilized measures of life’s necessities” to warrant Eighth Amendment protection. “With this conclusion the Court must, unfortunately, join in nearly thirty years of judicial recognition and condemnation of the practice in [the Jail] facilities,” citing most recently Thompson v. City of Los Angeles, 885. F.2d 1439 (9th Cir. 1989). The Court also mentioned the United Nations’ standards for prisoner treatment, which require that “every prisoner shall ... be provided with a separate bed ....”

Baca’s attempt to debunk the miserable Jail conditions, under the umbrella claim of “safety considerations” related to the need to isolate various groups of prisoners, did not pass muster. “A restriction that violates [minimum constitutional standards] cannot possibly be reasonable. ... Mechanical deference to the findings of [Jail] officials in the context of the Eighth Amendment would reduce that provision to a nullity in precisely the context where it is most necessary,” the Court observed.

The district court held that the Eighth Amendment requires the Jail to “assign and provide each inmate with a bunk for the night immediately following the inmate’s initial processing within the facility or transfer to a medical center or other place of screening or treatment, and for every night thereafter. Inmates must be processed within a reasonable amount of time.”

While unusual events such as a disturbance might cause an increase in processing time, the Court expressly ruled that “overcrowding or regular classification considerations do not constitute exigent circumstances that would justify floor-sleeping.” The district court further stated that it expected prisoners to be processed into the Jail within 24 hours.

The Court “easily” found that the “deliberate indifference” prong had been met based upon admissions of the defendants, and that floor-sleeping at the Jail amounted to a “custom.” The defendants were granted permission to file an interlocutory appeal of the Court’s summary judgment order; however, on April 16, 2008 their appeal was denied by the Ninth Circuit. The case is ongoing. See: Thomas v. Baca, 514 F.Supp.2d 1201 (C.D.Cal. 2007).

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Related legal case

Thomas v. Baca