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Settlement in Idaho Jail Condition Class-Action Suit

by Matt Clarke

On August 4, 2009, a consent decree was entered in a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of jail prisoners with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) over conditions of confinement at the Canyon County Jail in Caldwell, Idaho. The defendants agreed to eliminate overcrowding and improve ventilation, laundry, temperature control, recreation, plumbing, sanitation and medical care.

Amanda Davis, Alisha Baker, Troy Fenster, Desiree Comingo, Parnell Williams and Pedro Martin, six prisoners incarcerated at the Canyon County Jail, filed a federal class-action suit against Canyon County, the Board of County Commissioners and Sheriff Chris Smith in March 2009. They alleged that unconstitutional conditions of confinement existed at the facility due to severe overcrowding. Davis, who entered the jail when she was five months pregnant, had to sleep on the floor and was denied a second mattress.

The jail has three detention buildings: the 62-bed Annex, built in the 1940s; the Dale G. Haile Detention Center (DHDC), built in 1993; and the 216-bed Work Release Center, built in 2006, which was not part of the suit. The Annex was twice abandoned, only to be reopened due to overcrowding. Sheriff Smith believed the Annex should be closed permanently.

Under Idaho Sheriff’s Association (ISA) guidelines, DHDC’s functional capacity is 296 prisoners. Its optimal capacity is 255. However, DHDC has 488 beds and the daily population sometimes exceeds available bed space.

An August 28, 2007 report by the ISA found that “overcrowding would seem to be the inherent problem that creates security issues, tasks the staff and the physical plant [and] makes it very difficult to keep up maintenance, cleaning and refurbishment of the facility.” Prisoners reported a multitude of serious problems at the jail, including stale, humid air; mold on walls, ceilings and shower areas; condensing water on ceilings and other surfaces; a lack of sanitation supplies with no routine cleaning of shower or toilet areas; a lack of routine or emergency maintenance of the plumbing system; exposure to temperature extremes; inadequate recreation; inadequate bedding and laundry services; and insufficient staffing. The prisoners also complained of arbitrary enforcement of unposted rules, inadequate medical care, insufficient guard training and supervision, and discrimination against female prisoners.

“The kinds of conditions that exist at the Haile Detention Center should force all of us to consider the impact of our society’s overreliance on incarceration,” said Monica Hopkins, Executive Director of the ACLU of Idaho.

The parties agreed to enter into a consent decree that required the defendants to implement the terms of the settlement within 30 days unless they involved physical plant improvements. The jail will remain under monitoring by the court and the plaintiffs’ attorneys for at least two years before the suit becomes subject to the dismissal provisions of the PLRA, 18 U.S.C. § 3626(b). The consent decree requires a reduction in the number of beds to 296 at the DHDC; the jail is required to keep prisoner populations within that level except for temporary, unforeseen population spikes.

Further, jail staff must regularly issue cleaning supplies, perform sanitation and routine plumbing maintenance, improve ventilation, issue and dispose of razors daily, improve laundry services, and allow one hour of recreation a day. The jail is also required to maintain temperatures between 65 and 80 degrees, post the Inmate Handbook and grievance procedures, and offer special meals to prisoners with food allergies. The medical co-payment is to be reduced from $10 to $5 for nurse or doctor visits. Female work-release prisoners must be given privileges comparable to their male counterparts. Housing area mold remediation must be completed by April 30, 2010, and the fire alarm system is to be kept in proper working order.

The consent decree was approved by the U.S. District Court on November 12, 2009, the plaintiffs later negotiated an attorney fee award of $190,000. The prisoners in the class-action suit were represented by ACLU attorneys Stephen L. Pevar of Hartford, Connecticut and Lea C. Cooper of Boise, and ACLU cooperating attorney Dean J. Miller of Boise. See: Davis v. Canyon County, U.S.D.C. (D. Idaho), Case No. l:09-cv-00107-BLW.

Additional source: ACLU press release

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Related legal case

Davis v. Canyon County

Please see the brief bank for documents related to this case.