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Ninth Circuit Holds Serious Risk to Prisoner’s Health Posed by Year-Long Denial of Outdoor Exercise “Obvious” as a Matter of Law

by Mike Brodheim

In a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit brought by a California prisoner who was denied outdoor exercise for 13 months and 25 days while he was housed in a maximum security unit, the Ninth Circuit held that the risk to the prisoner’s health was serious and “obvious” to prison officials as a matter of law. The Court of Appeals further held that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether prison officials had acted reasonably under the circumstances in the case.

In July 2005, after two guards were stabbed and seriously wounded by a prisoner in Facility C at Salinas Valley State Prison (SVSP), prison officials placed the maximum security housing unit on lockdown. Nearly two months later they implemented a “modified program” that allowed non-contact visits but little else. In particular, the modified program denied prisoners all out-of-cell exercise.

After another month the Facility C Captain, G. Ponder, issued a memorandum explaining that the decision to return prisoners to “normal” programming would be made on a case-by-case basis. Under the terms of the memorandum, each prisoner would be interviewed, asked to commit in writing to participate in programs without violence, and then asked to sign a “pledge” form to that effect.

Otis Thomas, a Facility C prisoner who had no involvement in the July stabbings, was interviewed several times between August 2005 and June 2006. Each time he committed in writing to program non-violently, but balked when it came to signing a pledge. Because he refused to sign the pledge, prison officials refused to return Thomas to normal programming. He continued to be denied access to outdoor exercise until August 2006 when – tired, severely stressed and many pounds lighter – he reluctantly agreed to sign the non-violence pledge.

Subsequently transferred to Centinela State Prison, Thomas filed suit alleging that SVSP officials, including Captain Ponder, had violated his Eighth Amendment rights by denying him any opportunity for outdoor exercise for nearly 14 months. The defendant prison officials moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted.

On appeal, in a July 16, 2010 decision the Ninth Circuit agreed with the district court that the lengthy denial of outdoor exercise was “sufficiently serious” to satisfy the objective component of an Eighth Amendment claim. The Court of Appeals disagreed with the district court, however, that Thomas had fallen short with respect to the subjective component of his Eighth Amendment claim – i.e., whether prison officials had acted with “deliberate indifference.”

Showing deliberate indifference, the Ninth Circuit noted, entails two steps. First, it must be shown that prison officials were aware of a “substantial risk of serious harm” to a prisoner’s health or safety. Then it must be shown that the officials failed to act reasonably in light of all of the circumstances.

As to the first step, the appellate court held that as a matter of law, the potential consequences from extended deprivation of out-of-cell exercise were “obvious.” As to the second step, the Court of Appeals was deeply skeptical that, on remand, prison officials would be able to justify as “reasonable” a nearly 14-month-long deprivation of outdoor exercise predicated solely on a prisoner’s refusal to sign a pledge form. The district court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendants was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: Thomas v. Ponder, 611 F.3d 1144 (9th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Thomas v. Ponder