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Court Baffled by BOP's Steel-toe Boot Requirement for Prisoners

In reviewing the appeal of federal prisoner York Wilson, convicted by a jury of “assault resulting in serious bodily injury,” the Seventh Circuit criticized the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) policy that requires most prisoners to wear steel-toe boots. This mandate, according to the appellate court, could have resulted in the death of the victim when Wilson assaulted him while wearing steel-toe boots.

As a result of repeated kicks to the head, the victim, prisoner Efrain Rodriquez, “probably had suffered a concussion, which might or might not cause a complete loss of consciousness. He was bloody, had difficulty walking, there were two large lacerations on his forehead that required 16 stitches to close, there was bruising behind his ear, and he had scratches, abrasions, and contusions. His nose was broken and his eyes swollen shut and he complained of headache and of pain in his face and shoulders.... He was having difficulty sleeping and difficulty thinking and exhibited signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome, for which Zoloft was prescribed.”

Following his conviction, Wilson received an additional 46 months in prison for the assault.

The appellate court noted that the facility where the incident took place, FCI Greenville in Illinois, manufactures army combat uniforms – and the boots are required (though in unexplained ways) during the manufacturing process. However, the Seventh Circuit wrote, “why the inmates are permitted, let alone required, to wear them outside the manufacturing facility baffles us.”

The footwear policy highlighted by the Court is apparently a system-wide requirement for BOP prisoners, waived only in certain holding facilities such as the Chicago Metropolitan Correctional Center or for medical reasons at other prisons. Most federal prisoners in county jails or other holding facilities are issued soft, slipper-like canvas shoes, likely due to the widely-recognized threat that steel-toe boots pose as potential weapons.

In BOP facilities where steel-toe boots are required, prisoners are subject to being questioned by staff if they are not wearing the prescribed footwear and issued incident reports for non-compliance with the rule. Such reports can result in disciplinary hearings with possible loss of phone, email, commissary and other privileges. Allowances are made only for health reasons, i.e., foot injuries or deformities, and such exemptions are discouraged. Prisoners who receive an exemption must carry their pass to wear “soft shoes” at all times, and this requirement is just one more tool used by BOP staff to hassle prisoners who are otherwise in compliance with institutional rules.

In this case, the Court of Appeals found that a “reasonable jury” could have concluded that Wilson’s steel-toe boot assault constituted a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1365(h)(3), as it resulted in “bodily injury which involves ... a substantial risk of death ... extreme physical pain, protracted and obvious disfigurement ... or protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ or mental faculty.”

The Seventh Circuit wrote that “a jury should be instructed to use its common sense in deciding whether the injuries constitute serious bodily injury.” It also rejected Wilson’s arguments related to his self-defense claim, as there was no “reasonable belief that he was in imminent danger from [the victim], and without such a belief there can be no defense of self-defense.” The appellate court added that due to the severity of the assault, Wilson “should be grateful that he didn’t receive a longer sentence.” See: United States v. Wilson, 698 F.3d 969 (7th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

United States v. Wilson