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Eighth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Prisoners’ Suit over Repeated Overnight Deprivation of Clothing

Reversing the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by pretrial detainees at a Missouri jail, the Eighth Circuit held in a January 17, 2017 decision that depriving them of clothing up to three nights a week was more than a de minimus deprivation of their rights and might plausibly be unconstitutional punishment.

As representatives of the putative classes of current and former pretrial detainees at the Cole County Detention Center, Fineola Ingram, Justin Simmons and Brian Boykin filed a federal civil rights action in July 2015 pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging the jail’s laundry policy violated their constitutional rights. One to three times weekly, jail staff collected all of the prisoners’ clothing, including underwear, and washed them during the night. The clean clothing was returned about seven hours later.

During that time, the detainees had only a bed sheet and blanket with which to cover themselves. Their nakedness was exposed to cellmates during that time. Jail policy prohibited them from covering their cell windows, so jail staff of both genders could also see them naked. Further, the clean clothing was sometimes returned by guards of the opposite gender.

The district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss on the grounds that, because the laundry was done at night when there were no normal jail activities, and the prisoners had a sheet and blanket with which to cover themselves, it was “no more than a de minimus deprivation.” The plaintiffs appealed.

The Eighth Circuit noted that the proper standard for pretrial detainees under the 14th Amendment was to determine whether the complained-of conditions amounted to punishment.

In this case, each deprivation was “not exceedingly long, but the deprivations are repetitive and expected to last the full duration of confinement.” The appellate court held that constituted more than a de minimus deprivation. Further, while there is “no general right not to be seen naked by guards of the opposite sex ... and a detainee’s expectation of privacy is ‘of a diminished scope,’ ... detainees are still entitled to clothing.”

Finding that the case turned on the reason for the deprivation, the Court of Appeals noted the defendants had not asserted a reasonable relationship to a government purpose to justify the laundry policy. There was a purpose for laundering the clothes – cleanliness – but no purpose or explanation as to “why the jail is unable to stock and wash enough clothes to avoid extended periods without clothing on a more or less permanent basis.” A factfinder could infer that a policy unrelated to a legitimate purpose or goal is intended for punishment.

Therefore, because the jail’s clothing policy “plausibly amounts to unconstitutional punishment” of pretrial detainees, the Eighth Circuit reversed the dismissal and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings, where it remains pending. See: Ingram v. Cole County, 846 F.3d 282 (8th Cir. 2017). 

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