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Federal Prison Officials Granted Qualified Immunity in Colorado

A federal district court in Colorado has granted qualified immunity to the warden and associate wardens of the United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Unit (ADX) in regards to a lawsuit filed by a federal prisoner.

Prisoner Ahmed Ajaj filed suit against warden Robert Hood and against associate wardens James Burrell, David Duncan, Claude Chester, Jerome Zuercher, Ron Wiley and Michael Nalley.

Ajaj raised five claims. Claims one and two both alleged a failure to transfer him to a low-altitude, smoke-free unit, which he argued was a violation of his Eighth Amendment rights and contrary to medical instructions.

Claim three accused Hood, Burrell, Chester and Duncan of being deliberately indifferent to Ajaj’s conditions of confinement in violation of his Eighth Amendment rights. Specifically, limitations of property, mail, telephones and recreation; lockdown for 23 or 24 hours per day in extreme isolation; discipline for minor infractions; noise; cell lights remaining on for 24 hours a day; and the indefinite nature of his confinement at ADX.

Claim four argues Hood, Wiley and Nalley violated Ajaj’s due process rights by transferring him to ADX without notice and that he continues to be imprisoned there without a hearing or access to the ADX “step-down” program. The fifth claim accused Hood, Chester and Zuercher of violating Ajaj’s right to equal protection by singling him out for harsher treatment because he is a Palestinian Muslim.

The prison officials filed a motion for summary judgment seeking qualified immunity and dismissal. When facing a claim for civil damages, a prison official is entitled to qualified immunity if the conduct in question did not violate a clearly established statutory or constitutional right of which a reasonable official would have known.

The federal court granted qualified immunity to the wardens in their personal capacities because Ajaj failed to prove with sufficient evidence that medical staff recommended he be transferred due to altitude risk and second-hand smoke damage.

Claim three lacked enough evidence to support the objective prong of an Eighth Amendment claim. Ajaj brought evidence of only two conditions of his confinement: limited ability to exercise outdoors and his anticipated, indefinite confinement. To meet the objective prong and establish a prima facie Eighth Amendment violation, Ajaj must have produced competent evidence that the conditions of confinement deprived him of life’s necessities or constituted a substantial risk of serious harm. According to the court, Ajaj proved neither.

Claim five failed to competently demonstrate that Ajaj’s right to equal protection was violated. Even though Ajaj proved he has been unable to participate in the ADX “step-down” program, he did not demonstrate that other prisoners who were allowed access to the program were similarly situated to him.

The remaining claim is the denial of procedural due process with regard to the ADX “step-down” program. This claim is only brought against Hood, Wiley and Nalley in their official capacities. See: Ajaj v. United States, USDC, D. Colo., No. 03-CV-01959 (Sept. 15, 2006).

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Related legal case

Ajaj v. United States

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