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Indiana Overcrowding Suit Certified as Class Action; Grievances Specific Enough to Satisfy PLRA

A federal court in Indiana certified a jail overcrowding case as a class action. It also found that Plaintiff adequately exhausted his claims.

In January, 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Indiana brought suit on behalf of Richard Tyson, alleging that the Grant County Jail is overcrowded and understaffed, creating unconstitutional conditions. “There are too many people in too small a space,” said ACLU attorney Ken Falk. “It has resulted in predictable problems.”

Plaintiff alleged that overcrowding has caused tension, stress, fights, inadequate food and exercise, and triple-bunking in two-man cells. Alleging both constitutional and state law violations, Tyson sought declaratory and injunctive relief on behalf of himself and all similarly situated persons.

On May 9, 2007, the federal court granted Plaintiff’s motion for class certification, defining a class of “any and all persons currently confined, or who will in the future be confined, in the Grant County Jail.” In doing so, the court rejected Defendants’ argument that the class action commonality prong had not been satisfied because “Plaintiff ‘only has a de minimus claim short of constitutional dimension’…and that the claim was not properly exhausted in accordance with the Prison Litigation Reform Act” (PLRA).

The court noted that “Defendants do not contest that Plaintiff Tyson filed, and exhausted grievances claiming, that the jail was overcrowded.” Instead, “they argue that Tyson was not specific enough, and did not complain that the overcrowding resulted in any unconstitutional deprivation.” The court rejected “Defendants’ argument that Plaintiff’s grievances simply allege overcrowding in itself,” finding “that the allegations of tension, stress, and inadequate food surpass complaints of mere overcrowding.”

Citing Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 127 S.Ct. 910 (2007), the court acknowledged “that the PLRA does not require a hypertechnical grievance.” Moreover, “the Seventh Circuit has held that, absent more stringent administrative requirements, an inmate need not ‘lay out the facts, articulate legal theories, or demand particular relief,’ so long as the grievance objects ‘intelligibly to some asserted shortcoming.’ Strong v. David, 297 F3d 646, 650 (7th Cir. 2002).” Applying these standards, the court found that Plaintiff’s grievances satisfied the PLRA exhaustion requirement.

The court agreed with Defendants, however, that violation of Indiana Jail standards and statutes does not create a private right of action. Therefore, Plaintiff’s state law claims were dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

Sheriff Darrell Himelick said it’s business as usual at the jail until the suit is resolved. “Some things I can’t correct,” admitted Himelick. The jail’s official capacity is 274 prisoners, but the actual population has exceeded that cap every day for at least five years, often by a large margin. “For the most part, it’s about the same. We’re down around 300 inmates now,” acknowledged Himelick.

The sheriff has ordered some superficial “improvements” at the jail, including painting, cleaning, and repair work. “For inmates to feel uncomfortable, that’s not violating their rights,” said Himelick. “You’re not going to comfortable in jail. I wouldn’t be.” See: Tyson v. Grant County Sheriff, U.S.D.C. (N.D. In.), Case No. 1:07-CV-0010; 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34570.


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Related legal case

Tyson v. Grant County Sheriff