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Third Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Pennsylvania Prisoners’ Dry Cell Suit

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgement alleging prison officials lacked a penological interest in extending a prisoner’s duration in a dry cell. On January 15, 2020, it affirmed the grant of judgment on the claim related to the conditions of that confinement.

Pennsylvania prisoner Briaheen Thomas was receiving a visit on May 31, 2015, at SCI-Rockview when a guard saw his friend hand him a bag of M&Ms. He ate one and quickly took a drink of soda. The guard believed Thomas had ingested contraband, so he handcuffed him and immediately removed him from the visit room.

Thomas was placed in a “dry cell,” which is a cell that has been drained of water and its water sources are turned off. To expedite his release from the dry cell, Thomas was offered and accepted laxatives. Over the next four days, he had 12 bowel movements. No evidence of contraband was found and an X-ray of his abdomen revealed a clear gastrointestinal tract.

On the fourth day in the dry cell, the prison’s Program Review Committee (PRC) decided to continue Thomas’ dry cell confinement for five more days.

After he exhausted his administrative remedies, Thomas filed suit in federal court. The defendants moved for summary judgment, which the magistrate judge recommended denying.

The district court, however, granted the motion. Thomas appealed.

The Third Circuit agreed that as to Thomas’ claims on the conditions of confinement were properly dismissed. While in the dry cell, Thomas was handcuffed to the frame of the bed and forced to wear a paper-thin smock that did not fit him. His mattress was soiled and did not have a slip covering, sheet, or pillow. Thomas also was cold the entire time and not given a blanket. He was given no means to clean himself, including after bowel movements and before meals.

The Third Circuit, however, found there was no evidence that the PRC defendants were personally involved in those deprivations, so the claim was properly dismissed.

As to the duration of Thomas’ stay in the dry cell, the court found material issues of fact in dispute. While the first four days in the dry cell carried a penological interest, once the 12 bowel movements and X-ray revealed Thomas had not ingested contraband, whether there was a penological interest in continuing that confinement was in dispute. As such, summary judgment on that claim was inappropriate. The court further found the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity.

Related legal case

Thomas v. Tice, 946 F.3d 637