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Summary Judgment for CCA Reversed in Filthy Jail Conditions Case

On April 15, 2011, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s grant of summary judgment to Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) in a civil rights action alleging Eighth Amendment violations after CCA staff left a mentally ill prisoner in his squalid segregation cell for nine months.

The suit was filed by Mary Braswell, the conservator of prisoner Frank D. Horton, and raised claims based on the treatment Horton received at the CCA-managed Metro Davidson County Detention Facility (MDCDF) in Nashville. When Horton arrived at MDCDF he had a history of psychiatric treatment and behavioral problems that caused him to be considered a special needs prisoner. As a result, he was placed in segregation.

Sometime after 2006, Horton began refusing his daily opportunities to shower and exercise. CCA guards received approval to force Horton out of his cell to shower and for a mental health evaluation. He initially refused, but left the cell when “inflammatory agents” were used. It is unknown how many times that process was repeated.

It is clear, however, that after May 2007 no further attempts were made to remove Horton from his cell to take showers, clean his cell or receive mental health care. That is when Assistant Warden Michael Corlew came on the job.

MDCDF Captain Patrick Perry blew the whistle on January 31, 2008 by notifying the Davidson County Health Department that Horton had remained in his filthy cell for nine months, and providing them with copies of Horton’s segregation activity logs. CCA then fired him for doing so. Perry had worked in Horton’s unit; when he tried to talk to Horton, he found Horton had decompensated to the point that he would respond with “gibberish.”

“Perry testified that Horton’s cell was filthy, that there were several food trays on the floor and bacteria growing in the toilet, that Horton’s beard and hair were ‘matted’ and ‘out of control,’ and it appeared Horton had not washed himself or had his cell cleaned for months,” wrote the Sixth Circuit.

A court order resulted in Horton’s transfer from MDCDF on April 11, 2008. He subsequently received a mental health due process hearing and was placed in a special needs facility to be treated for schizophrenia. With treatment his condition improved. Braswell, his conservator, filed suit against CCA.

CCA moved to dismiss, which the district court treated as a summary judgment motion. The court found that administrative exhaustion requirements under the PLRA were unavailable due to Horton’s inability to speak coherently, and remained unavailable once he left CCA’s custody. The Sixth Circuit agreed with that finding. The appellate court emphasized that not only must Horton have been actually capable of filing a grievance, but his mental condition may have been so deteriorated that remedies were unavailable because he might not have been aware he required mental health care.

However, the Court of Appeals disagreed with the district court’s finding that Horton’s injuries were de minimus. The Sixth Circuit held that a prisoner who claims he has “languished in a filthy and unsanitary cell for nine consecutive months asserts more than a de minimus physical injury.”

Finally, the appellate court found there was “a genuine issue of material fact as to whether a CCA policy or custom was responsible for the alleged violation of Horton’s Eighth Amendment rights.” When Corlew came to MCDCF in May 2007, he ordered that uses of force would be used only in emergencies, and the need to clean Horton’s cell and give him a shower was not an emergency that warranted a cell extraction. So for the next nine months, guards simply marked “refused” on the segregation activity log when Horton declined shower and exercise opportunities.

The Court of Appeals said a policy or custom could be found by a jury. MCDCF Warden Brian Gardner “testified that CCA maintained records of each use of force incident, that officers had to forward incident reports to CCA’s corporate office, and that use-of-force incidents could be used to determine annual bonuses and pay raises for CCA employees,” wrote the appellate court.

“Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Braswell, CCA [guards] thus had both a carrot and a stick – an incentive to minimize uses of force, and a corporate policy requiring them to do so,” the Court of Appeals noted.

Finally, the Sixth Circuit cited several cases of other obviously mentally ill prisoners who were left to languish in their cells at MCDCF. For those reasons, the district court’s grant of summary judgment to CCA was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings, where it remains pending. See: Braswell v. CCA, 419 Fed.Appx. 622 (6th Cir. 2011) (unpublished).

Additional source: Associated Press

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Related legal case

Braswell v. CCA