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Qualified Immunity Denied when Pretrial Detainees Deprived of Water at Illinois Jail

by David M. Reutter

On August 12, 2019, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals denied qualified immunity to officials at Illinois’ Lake County Adult Correctional Institution (LCACI) who deprived pretrial detainees of sufficient water and sanitation for three days.

The matter was before the appellate court after the defendants, Sheriff Mark Curran and Chief of Corrections David Wathan, appealed the district court’s denial of their motion to dismiss on qualified immunity grounds.

The suit was filed by pretrial detainees at LCACI who claimed that from November 7 to 10, 2017, they became “sick, sleep deprived, and agitated” due to the continuous presence of excrement in their cells. Their complaint further alleged that a concurrent lack of drinking water caused numerous physical ailments. Despite it being a planned event, the jail’s water had been shut off on November 7 without forewarning to prisoners.

The purpose, according to Wathan, was to replace a water booster pump at the facility. Detainees were given five bottles of water per day for their personal use. A water barrel was provided in each pod for bathing, cleaning and flushing toilets in the cells. Flushing was limited to only when feces were present, and no flushing was allowed at night. The flushing often failed to clear the toilets, leaving feces and urine sitting for prolonged periods.

With 740 prisoners at the jail, “the continuous presence of excrement produced a powerful and putrid smell,” and attracted insects.

The Seventh Circuit found the conditions described in the complaint were similar to cases it had considered previously, both in severity and duration. The plaintiffs alleged injuries in the form of “dehydration, migraine headaches, sickness, dizziness, constipation, and general malaise,” according to their complaint.

“All but the most plainly incompetent jail officials would be aware it is constitutionally unacceptable to fail to provide inmates with enough water for consumption and sanitation over a three-day period,” the appellate court wrote. “Perhaps an official would be excused for miscalculating the amount of water needed ex ante, so long as he worked to fix the problem once it manifested.”

Prisoners who complained about being provided insufficient amounts of water were punished: “If a person repeatedly asked for more water, he was put on lockdown,” the Court of Appeals wrote. In deciding whether the plaintiffs stated a constitutional deprivation, the Court held that the objective inquiry established in Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 135 S.Ct. 2466 (2015) “applies to all Fourteenth Amendment conditions-of-confinement claims brought by pretrial detainees.”

While the Seventh Circuit said the merits of the case had yet to be determined, the plaintiffs’ factual allegations were sufficient to show the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity; accordingly, the district court’s order was affirmed. The case remains pending on remand. See: Hardeman v. Curran, 933 F.3d 816 (7th Cir. 2019). 

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Related legal case

Hardeman v. Curran