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California State Prisoner Wins $39,011 for Deprivation of Outdoor Exercise During Extended Lockdowns

On November 8, 2007, a federal jury awarded a California state prisoner $39,011 for injuries he suffered due to being placed in retaliatory extended lockdowns that prison officials initiated following assaults on staff by other prisoners. The lawsuit alleged cruel and unusual punishment resulting from excessive confinement with no outdoor exercise.
The jury awarded nominal actual damages, but also sent a message to prison authorities by awarding $39,000 in punitive damages.

Gregory Lynn Norwood, serving a life sentence without parole, and all other prisoners in his general population unit at the Level IV (maximum-security) California State Prison, Sacramento (CSP-SAC) were placed on four extended lockdowns comprising 14 of the 22 months between January 2002 and November 2003. None of the lockdowns arose from individual misconduct or escape attempts; each incident that precipitated a lockdown involved an alleged serious assault on staff by groups of other prisoners.

During the four lockdowns Norwood was released from his two-man cell three times per week for only 5 minutes, to shower. He complained that the extended lack of outdoor exercise caused him physical and psychological injury, including stress, anxiety, depression, headaches and muscle cramps, and that such confinement violated his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

Norwood sued the various wardens, associate wardens, captains and other senior staff who had signed off on the lockdowns. He asserted that their reasons for this harsh treatment were purely punitive and retaliatory, and were not based upon continuing safety or security concerns.
Particularly compelling in Norwood’s complaint was his observation that Administrative Segregation prisoners at CSP-SAC – e.g., those who had seriously misbehaved – continued to receive normal outdoor exercise periods, while general population prisoners did not. Indeed, if a prisoner went to ad seg for assaulting staff he continued to receive exercise periods, but if subjected to a general lockdown he was denied all outside yard access. After Norwood filed suit he was transferred to another Level IV prison at Tehachapi, California. This rendered his request for injunctive relief (the opportunity for outdoor exercise) moot.

The court reviewed all four lockdowns at CSP-SAC and determined there was no apparent justification for their continuation once the perpetrators involved in the staff assaults had been isolated. The district court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment based upon qualified immunity, due to common knowledge of the damaging effects on human beings resulting from an extended denial of fresh air and exercise.

The matter proceeded to a jury trial on Norwood’s Eighth Amendment claim for unspecified general damages for pain and suffering, plus punitive damages. While the court issued a comprehensive pre-trial order limiting the witnesses to be called, it issued a writ of habeas corpus ad testificandum for a prisoner representative from the CSP-SAC Inmate Advisory Council to appear for Norwood. Thirty-five staff members were called as witnesses for the defendants.

Following a five-day trial, the jury found for Norwood and against every named defendant in each of the four lockdown-related claims, awarding $11 in nominal damages for actual injuries and a total of $39,000 in punitive damages. Norwood had represented himself throughout the entire case until the third day of trial, when attorney Carter White and two law students from the King Hall Civil Rights Clinic of the University of California, Davis, entered the case on his behalf.

On March 11, 2008, the district court awarded attorney fees and costs to White and the two law students, Erin Haney and Nagmeh Shariatmadar. A total of $23,875.55 was awarded in combined fees and costs. Importantly, the court exercised its discretion and ruled that Norwood would only have to contribute $2.75 (25% of the nominal damage award of $11) toward the attorney fees under the fee-shifting provisions of the PLRA [42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(2)].

See: Norwood v. Alameida, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:03-cv-2554-GEB-GGH-P (Verdict Form, Nov. 8, 2007; Order, March 11, 2008). The documents are posted on PLN’s website.

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Related legal case

Norwood v. Alameida