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Closure Proper Remedy if Court’s Order Balked by Officials

The First Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a district court has the authority to order a jail or prison closed if its order to correct constitutional violations is not complied with.

This civil rights action was brought by prisoners at Massachusetts’ Essex County Jail, alleging the conditions at the jail violated their Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Essex facility holds a total of 130 prisoners and was constructed in 1815 with an addition added in 1884.

The district court found numerous constitutional violations. The first was a fire hazard. The floors are tongue-and-groove pine, covered with several layers of paint and flammable floor covering. There is only one centrally-located egress and all cell doors must be manually unlocked.

For the 130 prisoners, there is only one flush toilet. No plumbing exists in the cells. Prisoners are provided a plastic pail for excrement, a water pitcher, and a plastic basin. The district court, however, found prisoners are not always issued the required pitcher, basin, towels, sheets, and blankets upon admission. There exist only two shower stalls with three shower heads each, for bathing purposes.

The district court ordered at least three more flush toilets and sinks installed. It also ordered specific fire safety measures; glazing of windows with clear glass in lieu of the previous (frequently torn) opaque plastic covers; screens on windows in the kitchen; proper cleaning of food storage areas; enclosed toilet and sink for use by prisoners; an increase in jail staff for the dual purpose of adequate fire protection and permitting prisoners more out-of-cell time.

The sheriff appealed the district court’s order. The First Circuit found the relief was narrowly tailored to correct the constitutional violations. The sheriff’s main complaint was “with the trump card held by the district court, namely, the threat of ordering Essex closed if the changes are not made.” The First Circuit held that is a proper remedy if the executive or legislative branches balk at allocating funds for court-ordered changes.

The Court further rejected the sheriff’s argument that closure would be improper because some prisoners prefer Essex over a more distant facility. “The fact that some inmates might prefer unconstitutional conditions in no manner lessens the district court’s responsibility when confronted with a situation which offends the Constitution,” the Court said.

The district order was affirmed. See: Dimarzo v. Hall, 575 F.2d 15 (1st Cir. 1978).

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Related legal case

Dimarzo v. Cahilll