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Fifth Circuit: Sleep Deprivation May Violate Eighth Amendment

Fifth Circuit: Sleep Deprivation May Violate Eighth Amendment

by Matt Clarke

In an unpublished ruling, the Fifth Circuit held on April 1, 2014 that a Texas prisoner’s sleep deprivation-based challenge to the security schedule used by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) may state a valid claim for violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Michael Garrett, incarcerated at the TDCJ’s McConnell Unit, filed a federal civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) against prison officials, alleging that the TDCJ’s schedule deprived him of a minimum six hours of sleep per night; the prison’s use of cameras in the toilet and dressing areas of his dorm unit was an invasion of privacy; and the prison failed to conform to ADA standards. A federal magistrate, who was presiding over the case with the permission of the parties, dismissed the action for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, and Garrett appealed.

The Fifth Circuit upheld the dismissal of the privacy and ADA claims. In doing so it noted that under the ADA, prison officials must make reasonable accommodations or modifications for disabled prisoners regardless of when the facility was constructed, but Garrett failed to allege that the prison had not made such an accommodation or modification for his vertigo. Since his ADA complaint alleged a lack of handrails or safety bars in his dorm unit, he also should have explained why he never requested a transfer to a cell block where medical showers with such accommodations were available.

Addressing the sleep deprivation claim, the Court of Appeals noted Garrett’s allegation that the prison’s schedule of lights out at 10:30 p.m. and breakfast call at 2:30 a.m. allowed for only four hours of sleep, which was interrupted by guards conducting “head counts.” The Court observed that sleep is one of life’s basic needs, and therefore “conditions designed to prevent sleep may violate the Eighth Amendment.”

According to an article in Popular Science, studies have shown that acute sleep deprivation causes mental impairment and can boost hunger-stimulating hormones, leading to obesity, while “chronic sleep of five or fewer hours over a 10-year period is associated with a 45% elevated risk of heart attack” and increases the likelihood of cancer, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, stroke, ADHD, alcoholism and mood disorders.

The appellate court wrote the magistrate judge had relied on the unpublished case of Walker v. Nunn, 456 Fed.Appx. 419 (5th Cir. 2011) in dismissing Garrett’s sleep deprivation claim. However, the opinion in that case, which was decided on summary judgment with a developed record, contained no indication of how many hours of sleep were allowed and thus did not bar Garrett’s specific claim of having only four hours of sleep per night. The magistrate judge also erred by stating Garrett would have to prove a physical injury in order to prevail, due to the physical injury requirement of the Prison Litigation Reform Act. Garrett was not required to show a physical injury as he was seeking only injunctive relief, not monetary damages.

The Fifth Circuit further noted that in Harper v. Showers, 174 F.3d 716 (5th Cir. 1999) [PLN, Dec. 1999, p.23], it had previously held sleep deprivation could constitute cruel and unusual punishment, and a sister circuit had made a similar finding in Walker v. Schult, 717 F.3d 119 (2d Cir. 2013) [PLN, May 2014, p.21].

The appellate court therefore affirmed the dismissal of Garrett’s privacy and ADA claims but reversed the dismissal of his sleep deprivation claim, and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings. Garrett appeared pro se on appeal after the Fifth Circuit declined to appoint counsel to represent him. See: Garrett v. Thaler, 560 Fed.Appx. 375 (5th Cir. 2014).

The case remains pending before the district court on the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment. The defendants have alleged that Garrett failed to properly exhaust his administrative remedies as he did not complete a Step 2 appeal in the grievance process after his initial grievance was deemed “not grievable,” and on October 1, 2014 the magistrate judge recommended dismissal of the case on that basis.


Additional source: Popular Science


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Related legal cases

Garrett v. Thaler

Walker v. Schult

Walker v. Nunn

Harper v. Showers