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$96,000 Settlement in Massachusetts Conditions of Confinement Suit

Following a Massachusetts Superior Court’s award of nominal damages and attorney fees in a prison conditions case, and with an appeal pending, the parties entered into a settlement agreement. The settlement resulted from a lawsuit that sought damages for “disgusting and unhealthy conditions” at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Cedar Junction (MCI-CJ).

The suit was filed by 15 state prisoners “who were forced by defendants to literally wallow in human excrement which covered the walls, and, mixed with several inches of toilet water, the floors of a cell block” at MCI-CJ. They were exposed to those conditions for about three weeks.

Guards moved 40 to 45 prisoners from the minimum-security end of MCI-CJ on February 16, 1999 to the OU-I cellblock, which is the maximum-security end. The prisoners went from being able to work during the day and leave their cells in the evening for recreation or study to remaining locked in a cell all day. None had committed acts of misconduct to justify punishment, but they were denied showers, phone calls, short periods of out-of-cell exercise and access to the canteen that was normally provided to maximum-security prisoners.

The perceived unfairness of the situation caused a protest by many of the transferred prisoners, but not the plaintiffs who later filed suit. The protestors began throwing objects out of their cells into the common area of the three-tier cell block, including human feces and urine.

The protest continued to intensify and by February 18, 1999 the walls and floors of the common area, as well as tables used to hold food trays, were largely covered with excrement. Some prisoners received food trays contaminated with feces. “The stench from human waste was unbearable,” the lawsuit stated.

Guards came during the first week and confiscated prisoners’ property, including television sets, radios, typewriters, fans and cleaning supplies. This occurred without regard to whether they were part of the protest. The air temperature was allowed to exceed 90 degrees, which intensified the stench.

Guards returned on February 24 to remove the prisoners’ clothing, stationery, reading materials and personal hygiene items. The protesting prisoners responded by causing their toilets to overflow. The water combined with the excrement and urine to create one to four inches of foul liquid on the cell floors. Many prisoners were forced to wade through the sewage to retrieve their meals.

The response by guards was to shut off all water to the cellblock. This left prisoners unable to wash their hands upon “accepting trays taken off of feces-covered tables.” At least one prisoner was unable to take food and medication as prescribed, requiring hospitalization. Another caught a staph infection. Others were unable to maintain adequate hydration due to the heat and lack of water.

Before a representative from the Department of Public Health (DPH) arrived on March 1, 1999, guards cleaned the walls and floor with high pressure hoses. The DPH inspector still found an “unsanitary condition” and “excessive heat.”

The Suffolk County Superior Court entered judgment in favor of the prisoners on their Eighth Amendment claims on February 11, 2009. Each named plaintiff received nominal damages and the court awarded $547,566 in attorney fees and $2,741 in costs. The defendants appealed and the case was transferred to the Supreme Judicial Court in October 2010.

A compromise settlement, reached on March 24, 2011, provided that Prisoners’ Legal Services (formerly Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services), which represented the prisoners, would be paid $96,000 to satisfy damages, attorney fees and costs. See: Ashman v. Marshall, Suffolk County Superior Court (MA), Case No. SUCV2000-05618.

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Related legal case

Ashman v. Marshall