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Ninth Circuit Upholds Six-Day Contraband Watch Conditions

A divided panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that California prison officials are entitled to qualified immunity on a prisoner’s claim that the conditions of a six-day contraband watch – which included 24-hour lighting, the absence of a mattress and extensive bodily restraints – violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

On April 30, 2002, shortly after Philissa Richard, the fiancée of CSP-Sacramento prisoner Rex Chappell, admitted she was the owner of a discarded hairpiece – which had tested positive for cocaine residue – found during a search of the area around the prison visiting room, guards searched Chappell’s cell and discovered methamphetamine. He was then put on contraband watch to determine whether he had ingested or secreted any other drugs.

Chappell was placed in two pairs of underwear, one worn normally and the other backwards, with the underwear taped at the waist and thighs. He was also dressed in two jumpsuits, one worn normally and the other backwards, with the suits taped at the thighs, ankles, waist and upper arms to close off any openings. He was then put in ankle shackles and a waist chain. Finally, he was placed in a surveillance cell with no furniture other than a bed without a mattress. There, chained to the bed and under constant bright lights so staff could observe him, Chappell was forced to “eat [his] food like a dog.”

After having three bowel movements that did not reveal any drugs, he was released from contraband watch on May 6, 2002.

Chappell subsequently filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging various constitutional violations. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendant prison officials on all but two of Chappell’s claims – that the contraband watch constituted cruel and unusual punishment and that his due process rights were violated when he had neither received notice of nor an opportunity to rebut the charges against him before he was placed on contraband watch.

On interlocutory appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of summary judgment on those claims, holding the law was not clearly established as to whether the conditions of the contraband watch to which Chappell was subjected in 2002 violated the Eighth Amendment, or whether those conditions constituted an “atypical and significant hardship” sufficient to trigger due process protections.

In dissent, Circuit Judge Marsha S. Berzon expressed the view that a reasonable prison official would have known that, in combination, the 24-hour bright lights, absence of a mattress and extensive restraints risked depriving Chappell of sleep in violation of the Eighth Amendment, and that Chappell therefore should have had an opportunity to prove to a jury that the defendants were deliberately indifferent to the risk of physical or psychological harm created by the conditions of his confinement while on contraband watch. See: Chappell v. Mandeville, 706 F.3d 1052 (9th Cir. 2013).

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