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Federal Court Continues Oversight of Wyoming State Penitentiary

A Wyoming federal district court had entered an order that continues its supervision of the Wyoming State Penitentiary. That supervision began in October 2003 as the result of a class action civil rights action, alleging unconstitutional conditions of confinement that failed to reasonably protect prisoners form prisoner-on-prisoner violence.

The district court’s initial order found the unconstitutional conditions resulted from three undisputed failures by prison officials: 1) failure to adequately train and supervise staff in how to investigate and abate dangerous conditions; 2) failure to develop an effective internal review process for the reporting of policy violations committed by staff; and 3) failure to discipline malfeasant staff. See: Skinner v. Uphoff, 234 F.Supp. 2d 1208 (D. Wyo. 2002).

PLN previously reported the district court’s order that required prison officials to share information with defense counsel on prisoner assault investigations and that established rules for protecting confidential information. See: Skinner v. Uphoff, 410 F.Supp.2d 1104 (D.Wyo. 2006).

The defendants moved to terminate the prospective relief order under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), as more than two years had expired since the order’s entry. The Court commended the defendants for “significant improvements” made in conditions at the Penitentiary. Its order was not meant to minimize that progress. “Good work is good work, even when more work remains done.”

More work is required on the “Penitentiary’s Inmate Conflict Documentation System.” That system is to “document verified conflicts to prevent placement of inmates with conflicts in proximity to each other, especially in housing units.” The Court found incidents where guards failed to check that system for placing prisoners in housing assignments, causing assaults. Moreover, they failed to act after being informed of the conflict. For these reasons, the Court continued overseeing the implantation and enhancement of the conflict documentation system.

While the Court found it was necessary to continue internal investigation of assaults, it held the requirement of an outside investigator is no longer necessary. The Court noted that since 2003, there were 153 investigations that resulted in a written report. 89 of those were assaults, and 13 were premeditated. Since no record of assaults was kept prior to 2003, the Court could not determine if its relief lessened violence at the Penitentiary.

The Court rebuked prison officials’ policy that guards need not record policies they feel contributed to assaults if the guard had previously reported it and been told by a supervisor it does not create an “institutional deficiency.” Not only does this prevent new prison managers from identifying potential problems created by previous decisions, but it threatens to recreate the culture of silence by telling new staff not to question settled policies.

Since 2003, prison officials took 159 staff disciplinary actions against 125 different guards for actions that contributed to assaults. The Court terminated any duties under the Remedial Plan because the disciplinary process is adequate. However, the tracking of staff discipline must continue.

Finally, the Court found training of prisoners and staff to prevent assaults. In these regards, the Court continued supervision for 1 year with the Joint Expert being required to inspect the Penitentiary and submit reports twice yearly. See: Skinner v. Lampert, 457 F.Supp.2d 1269 (2006).

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Related legal case

Skinner v. Lampert