by Matt Clarke
On August 5, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit refused to reverse a district court and order an injunction against the Mississippi Department of Corrections (DOC) because, during the pendency of the lawsuit, DOC had improved conditions at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF)—which holds prisoners with mental illnesses—sufficiently so that conditions there were no longer unconstitutional.
In its ruling, the Court held that the mere possibility that future conditions would revert to previously unconstitutional conditions was not sufficient justification for an injunction now.
In their original complaint the prisoners alleged they were left alone in their cells to defecate in Styrofoam trays that they then had to hold in plastic bags, among other horrific conditions. Three EMCF prisoners—Jermaine Dockery, Joseph Osborne and John Barrett—were joined by a dozen others to file a federal civil rights class-action lawsuit in 2013, alleging conditions of confinement at EMCF violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Following five years of pretrial discovery and motions, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi held a five-week bench trial in 2018. After the judge personally toured EMCF, the court ordered post-trial discovery and briefing on EMCF’s current status.
When those findings came in, and the case record ballooned to 100,000 pages, the district court then issued a 55-page order that considered the conditions to which the prisoners objected in seven broad groups:
• use of excessive force on prisoners by guards;
• inadequate medical care;
• inadequate mental health care;
• poor nutrition and food safety;
• failure to protect prisoners from violence;
• poor sanitation; and
• excessively frequent and long periods that prisoners spent in solitary confinement.
Refusing to rule on the constitutionality of conditions at the time the lawsuit was filed, the district court found no current violations. As a result, it denied plaintiffs all relief they had sought, saying that EMCF was “not the same [prison] as the one that existed when this lawsuit was filed.”
The opinion also noted that the original lead defendant, former DOC Commissioner Christopher Epps, had been convicted on corruption charges and sent to federal prison. Also, the prison’s health services contractor at the time the suit was filed, Dr. Carl Reddix, had been convicted of bribery and imprisoned. As a result the district court found that “the bribery and kickback … likely affected the quality of care that was being provided to prisoners as well as other conditions” at EMCF. The same companies kept the contracts they paid bribes to obtain which did not seem to trouble the court.
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit noted that the plaintiffs had disclaimed any argument that the district court erred in its findings of fact. Thus, only the district court’s legal conclusions were being subjected to de novo review.
Plaintiffs argued that the district court erred by considering the challenged conditions in isolation, rather than in combination. In response, the three-judge panel for the Fifth Circuit held that, whereas courts must consider whether conditions “have a mutually enforcing effect that produces the deprivation of a single, identifiable human need such as food, warmth, or exercise,” there was no indication that the district court had failed to do so.
In fact, when the district court organized its discussion of conditions by grouping them into the categories it did, it based those categories on different “identifiable human needs,” and then it reached a conclusion in each category before going on to the next. This did not, however, indicate a failure to consider the possibility of mutually enforcing effects, the judges decided.
The panel also rejected plaintiffs’ claim that the district court erred by failing to consider whether past violations were likely to recur. Citing Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994), the judges noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had foreclosed the possibility of granting injunctive relief based upon possible future constitutional violations, so long as defendants were complying with the constitution at the time of trial.
The Farmer Court held that district courts “should approach the issuance of injunctive orders with the usual caution” and “may … exercise discretion if appropriate by giving prison officials time to rectify the situation.” That is what the district court did and, upon holding that conditions were no longer unconstitutional, it properly denied injunctive relief, the judges concluded, affirming the judgment. See: Dockery v. Cain, 7 F.4th 375 (5th Cir. 2021).
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Related legal case
Dockery v. Cain
|7 F.4th 375 (5th Cir. 2021)
|Court of Appeals