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Allowing Others to Attack Prisoner, Making Credible Death Threats, Labeling Prisoner a Snitch Violate Eighth Amendment

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed in part a district court’s denial of qualified immunity to four guards accused of violating a prisoner’s Eighth Amendment rights.

William Irving, a Missouri prisoner, filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against Thomas Brigance, Ronetta Hyer, Warren Cressey and Leonard Neff, guards at the Jefferson County Correctional Center, for subjecting him to retaliation in response to a previous lawsuit he had filed against them.

Irving alleged that Brigance, Hyer, Cressey and Neff violated his right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment when they allowed another prisoner to attack him, made death threats against him, and falsely labeled him a snitch.

For example, Irving claimed that on November 4, 2004, Ephriam Prewitt, another prisoner, asked Hyer and Neff to “pop” the cell doors so he could assault Irving. In response to that request Hyer and Neff opened the doors and Prewitt attacked Irving, striking him in the face and causing injury to his jaw and nose. Irving was unable to breathe properly for two months as a result of the assault.

Irving also alleged that Brigance gave another prisoner a razor to use as a weapon in another attack. Irving overheard Brigance and the other prisoner planning the attack and reported it to Brigance’s supervisor, which caused Brigance to retrieve the razor from the other prisoner before it could be used. Irving further alleged that Brigance offered money and cigarettes to three prisoners in exchange for assaulting him, made death threats on at least two occasions, and “repeatedly told other inmates that Irving was a snitch in an effort to incite them” to attack him. Cressey, Neff and Hyer reportedly made death threats against Irving or otherwise intimidated him.

Brigance, Hyer, Cressey and Neff moved for summary judgment on Irving’s Eighth Amendment claims, which the district court denied. They then took an interlocutory appeal challenging the district court’s denial of their qualified immunity defense.

The Eighth Circuit began its analysis with Irving’s claim that Hyer and Neff had failed to protect him by opening the cell doors to allow the attack by Prewitt. Such an action, if true, “portrays unjustifiable, actionable inmate-endangering conduct,” the appellate court stated. Hyer and Neff attempted to minimize their conduct by arguing that Irving’s injuries were too minor to warrant Eighth Amendment protection. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding “a blow to the face that resulted in a two-month period of difficulty in breathing is greater than de minimis.”

Turning to Irving’s claims against Brigance, the appellate court held that making credible death threats and labeling a prisoner a snitch violate the Eighth Amendment. Brigance had argued that the law was not clearly established that making death threats or snitch labeling violated the Eighth Amendment. The court rejected those arguments.

Repeated and credible threats against a prisoner, if proved to be true, constitute “brutal and wanton acts of cruelty that serve no legitimate penological purpose and pose a substantial risk of harm to [a prisoner’s] health,” the appellate court explained. However, the court found that the death threats by Neff, Hyer and Cressey, although “reprehensible and unjustified,” were not as credible and therefore did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation.

Further, the Court of Appeals held Brigance was on fair notice that to falsely label a prisoner a snitch was to “unreasonably subject [a prisoner] to the threat of a substantial risk of serious harm at the hands of ... fellow [prisoners].”

Accordingly, the judgment of the district court was affirmed in regard to the denial of qualified immunity to Hyer and Neff related to the Prewitt incident, and to Brigance related to death threats and labeling Irving a snitch. Qualified immunity was granted to Hyer, Neff and Cressey as to their less credible death threats. See: Irving v. Dormire, 519 F.3d 441 (8th Cir. 2008).

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Related legal case

Irving v. Dormire