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Seventh Circuit Reinstates Prisoner’s Eighth Amendment Suit; $26,875 Settlement on Remand

Seventh Circuit Reinstates Prisoner’s Eighth Amendment Suit; $26,875 Settlement on Remand

by Lonnie Burton

n July 17, 2014, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a lawsuit filed by a mentally ill Wisconsin prisoner who claimed he was subjected to months of cruel and inhumane living conditions.

While incarcerated at the Green Bay Correctional Institution (GBCI), John Townsend had a mental condition that caused him to engage in disruptive behavior. In response to his behavior, which included fights and repeated suicide attempts, GBCI imposed a “Behavior Action Plan,” or BAP, which included loss of property and privileges.

BAPs, which do not afford the prisoner a hearing or chance to object, are reviewed on an “ongoing and regular basis” according to GBCI officials. In Townsend’s case, he was subjected to BAPs numerous times, including one for 259 days. For at least 90 of those days he was either naked or issued only a paper gown. For 106 days he was not given a mattress, pillow or sheets and was forced to sleep on a concrete slab. Townsend was also not allowed a towel, soap or toilet paper; he was let out of his cell for one hour a week to read and write letters.

In addition, while subject to the BAP, Townsend was not given a toothbrush or toothpaste and had to eat all of his meals, which were delivered in a bag, with his hands. For at least a two-week period he was left naked in a completely barren cell.

Townsend later filed suit, claiming that the conditions of his confinement not only constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment, but that he was subjected to those conditions without a hearing or a chance to object in violation of his due process rights.

The district court granted summary judgment to the GBCI defendants, finding that the BAP was not punitive but was only imposed to prevent Townsend from harming himself or others. Thus, the defendants were entitled to summary judgment, the court concluded.

Noting that at the summary judgment stage of the proceedings all of the facts must be construed in favor of the non-moving party – Townsend in this case – the Seventh Circuit held the district court had erred in dismissing his claims.

The Court of Appeals found that the BAPs were, at a minimum, implemented for both punitive and safety purposes. Accordingly, due process was required if the conditions that Townsend described constituted an “atypical and significant hardship compared to ordinary prison life.” Townsend “easily meets this standard,” the Court wrote.

With his own sworn statement, Townsend had “raised a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether the BAP was imposed for safety reasons or as a disciplinary measure.” Further, the Seventh Circuit noted the defendants had conceded that the BAP “has elements designed to enforce discipline,” and was imposed following Townsend’s violation of prison rules.

Based on those facts the appellate court found the defendants were not entitled to summary judgment. “In sum, Townsend has raised genuine issues of material fact regarding whether (1) the imposition of the BAP violated his due process rights by imposing an atypical and significant hardship compared to the ordinary incidents of prison life, without appropriate notice and an opportunity to be heard; and (2) the BAP imposed conditions of confinement that denied Townsend the minimal civilized measures of life’s necessities,” the Court of Appeals wrote.

Therefore, the district court’s order granting summary judgment to the defendants was vacated. The case settled following remand, in December 2014, for $26,875. See: Townsend v. Cooper, 759 F.3d 678 (7th Cir. 2014).


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Related legal case

Townsend v. Cooper