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Third Circuit Vacates Summary Judgment on SHU Strip Search Claims

The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed a summary judgment order in favor of prison officials who subjected prisoners in segregation to visual body-cavity searches three times a day.

While confined in a Secured Housing Unit (SHU) cell at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, Delaware prisoner Donald Parkell was given only a t-shirt, boxer briefs and socks to wear. He was never allowed to leave the cell except for three, five-minute showers per week.

Nevertheless, guards strip-searched Parkell three times each day, “visually inspecting his anus and genitals while he ‘was forced to squat naked and cough loudly.’”

Parkell filed suit in federal court, alleging, among other claims, that guards violated his Fourth Amendment rights by subjecting him to repeated visual body-cavity searches while he was in the SHU. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants on all claims.

The Third Circuit reversed on appeal in an exhaustive ruling, finding that “the State Defendants were not entitled to summary judgment on the question of whether the searches violated the Fourth Amendment.”

The appellate court concluded “that the particular search policy” before it was “not reasonably related to ... legitimate interests in detecting and deterring contraband, particularly given the significant intrusiveness of the thrice-daily visual body-cavity searches.”

The Court of Appeals observed the defendants were “unable to articulate a single plausible theory as to how” SHU prisoners “would have thrice-daily opportunities to smuggle in contraband from outside their cells or use unsupervised time in their locked cells to transform a harmless object into something dangerous.”

Ultimately, the Court held the search policy “sweeps too broadly with insufficient justification,” adding the prison’s “security interests are not reasonably advanced by a blanket policy of frequently and intrusively searching inmates who have previously been thoroughly searched and held in a stripped-down isolation cell without human contact ever since.”

The Third Circuit upheld the dismissal of Parkell’s damage claims because the record did not support a finding that any of the named defendants were personally involved in the alleged Fourth Amendment violations. It concluded, however, that “Parkell could potentially receive prospective injunctive relief” on his Fourth Amendment claim.

The case was remanded to the district court to decide in the first instance whether Parkell’s injunctive relief claim was moot. His lawsuit remains pending on remand. See: Parkell v. Danberg, 833 F.3d 313 (3d Cir. 2016). 

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Related legal case

Parkell v. Danberg