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Eleventh Circuit Affirms Injunction in Florida DOC Mental Health Conditions Pepper Spray Case

by David M. Reutter

On August 20, 2010, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court’s order that found a warden and the secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) had “turned a blind eye” to a prisoner’s “mental health needs and the obvious danger that the use of chemical agents presented to his psychological well-being.”

The lawsuit in this case was originally filed on behalf of ten prisoners, alleging that the use of chemical agents on prisoners with mental illnesses and other vulnerabilities violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

After damage claims against individual prison guards were settled, the district court held a five-day bench trial on the claims of prisoners Jeremiah Thomas and Michael McKinney.
As previously reported in PLN, the court concluded that Thomas and McKinney had “demonstrated that at times in which they were sprayed with chemical agents, they were unable to conform their behavior to prison standards due to their mental illnesses such that the DOC’s use of force for purposes of prison discipline amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.” [See: PLN, Sept. 2009, p.22].

To cure this constitutional violation, the FDOC was enjoined from “allowing the non-spontaneous use of chemical agents” on prisoners “without first consulting with DOC’s trained mental health staff to evaluate their mental health status.” The defendants appealed.

Before the Eleventh Circuit heard the case, however, “an unfortunate turn of events” occurred. Four days prior to oral argument, Thomas died while in FDOC custody. This mooted his requests for declaratory and injunctive relief. Although the appellate court was without jurisdiction to hear the appeal, it held that Thomas’ estate was entitled to pursue attorney fees and costs as a “prevailing party” for proceedings before the district court.
In reviewing the FDOC’s appeal related to McKinney’s claims, the Court of Appeals accepted the “uncontested factual findings” contained in the district court’s 75-page order. Those findings comprised 50 pages of the order.

In 1989, at the age of 20, McKinney was sentenced to life in prison for attempted first-degree murder. According to FDOC records he was “identified as having only marginal intellectual functioning and propensities for anger and anti-social behavior.” McKinney had received over 320 disciplinary violations by 2007, which landed – and kept him – in close management custody, Florida’s version of the Supermax.

“Throughout the course of incarceration, McKinney has been diagnosed with various serious mental illnesses, including an adjustment disorder with a depressed mood, antisocial personality disorder, and major depression with recurrent psychotic ideations,” the appellate court wrote. “McKinney has a history of self-injurious behavior, including head banging, self-inflicted lacerations, drug overdoses, setting fires in his cell, and suicide attempts.”

He was sprayed with chemical agents 36 times under the FDOC’s “non-spontaneous use-of-force policy” for exhibiting such behavior. He was also transferred to a stabilization unit at Union Correctional Institution (UCI) ten times for ongoing psychiatric treatment, and to the infirmary at the Florida State Prison (FSP) seven times for various psychological emergencies or short-term psychiatric care.

The Eleventh Circuit noted that the FDOC had made some improvements in regard to conditions in close management units. Despite those reforms, the prison system’s policies still allowed mentally ill prisoners to be sprayed with chemical agents. Further, “[i]n light of the DOC’s history of constitutional violations and its failure to give ‘any express assurance’ that McKinney will not be exposed to the use of chemical agents merely because he is exhibiting symptoms of his mental illness in the future, these reforms are insufficient to eliminate the need for injunctive relief,” the Court of Appeals wrote.

The FDOC asserted two arguments on appeal. It claimed there was no evidence that McKinney was “ever acutely mentally ill” when he was sprayed with chemical agents, and “that because chemical agents have been deemed the least harmful alternative among the options available to prison officials to respond to a prison disturbance their use can never constitute ‘unnecessary or brutal treatment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.’” The appellate court rejected both arguments.

The Eleventh Circuit held that the evidence showed FDOC Secretary Walter A. McNeil and FSP Warden Randall Bryant had “recklessly disregarded” the risk to McKinney. The Court of Appeals therefore affirmed the grant of declaratory relief and found the injunctive relief ordered by the district court was narrowly tailored. The Court noted that the injunction was similar to a Federal Bureau of Prisons policy, and “[f]ar from abusing its discretion, the district court apparently went to great efforts to accommodate and complement the DOC’s current regulatory structure despite the DOC’s unwillingness to assist the court in fashioning the most appropriate relief.” See: Thomas v. Bryant, 
614 F.3d 1288 (11th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Thomas v. Bryant