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Prisoner Education Guide

Missouri Prisoner Awarded $111,000 in Second-Hand Smoke Case, DOC Bans Smoking

by Derek Gilna

Ecclesiastical Denzel Washington, a former death row prisoner who is now serving a life sentence, won a jury verdict against the Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC) and various prison officials totaling $111,000. Following the April 2017 verdict, Washington negotiated a settlement banning the sale and consumption of tobacco and tobacco products in state prisons.

His lawsuit alleged that Missouri DOC officials subjected him to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment by ignoring his individual medical management plan, which “required that he be placed in [a] smoke-free environment.” Washington claimed that being housed with smokers exacerbated his asthma and bronchitis.

He attached to his pro se complaint an article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which referenced a study by the U.S. Surgeon General entitled, “There is no safe level of secondhand smoke.” Washington meticulously recorded every time prison staff failed to provide him the living environment that his health and their own policies required, and informed DOC officials that the smoking policies at the Crossroads Correctional Center – which prohibited prisoners from smoking inside their housing units – were not being followed. His complaints were ignored and he was repeatedly celled with other prisoners who smoked. As a result, the jury ruled in his favor at trial. 

However, not only did he win a substantial monentary judgment, consisting of $40,000 in compensatory damages and $71,000 in punitive damages, he also followed through on his complaint with the assistance of appointed counsel to ensure that no other prisoners would suffer as a result of second-hand smoke. Given that there are over 30,000 prisoners in Missouri DOC facilities, this will result in major health benefits as well as reduced medical costs for smoking-related illnesses.

Pursuant to the settlement the district court entered an order stating, “the Missouri Department of Corrections shall, on or before April 1, 2018, amend its smoking policy to prohibit the sale, possession, and consumption of all tobacco products, except for authorized religious purposes, inside correctional buildings and on the grounds inside the correctional perimeter at all Department correctional centers ... and enforce such policy thereafter.”

Further, the court awarded $152,276.51 in attorney fees, $4,911.81 in expenses and $4,492.70 in taxable costs. Washington was ordered to pay $11,100 toward the fees, representing 10 percent of his jury award, pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act. See: Washington v. Denney, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Mo.), Case No. 2:14-cv-06118-NKL.

According to Washington’s court-appointed counsel, Phillip Zeeck with the Polsinelli law firm, “This is a win ultimately for the people who work and live in Missouri’s correctional facilities.” 

The smoking ban went into effect at all state prisons in April 2018, and prohibits smoking by prisoners, staff, contractors and visitors within the secure perimeter. DOC employees were provided free smoking-cessation products, such as nicotine patches, while prisoners could purchase such products from the commissary. Washington has since been transferred to an out-of-state prison for his own safety.

On August 12, 2018, the Eighth Circuit upheld the jury verdict and compensatory damages award but reversed the punitive damages, finding the defendants’ conduct was not “outrageous, intentional, or malicious.” The case was remanded for further proceedings. See: Washington v. Denney, 900 F.3d 549 (8th Cir. 2018). 

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Additional sources: kansascity.com, newstribune.com, fox4kc.com

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Washington v. Denney


 

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