by David M. Reutter
On May 5, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit certified a class of Illinois prisoners in a suit accusing officials in the state Department of Corrections (DOC) of conducting unconstitutionally demeaning and unsanitary shakedowns at four downstate prisons.
The raids all occurred in 2014, at Menard Correctional Center (CC) from April 4–16, Illinois River CC from April 21–29, Big Muddy River CC from May 12–19, and Lawrence CC from July 7–11. Conducted “for purposes of sanitation and to discover and remove contraband,” as the Court recalled, they were carried out by a tactical team wearing orange jumpsuits without name tags, earning the nickname “Orange Crush.” [See: PLN, Feb. 2017, p.58.]
Senior DOC officials supervised the shakedowns, briefing tactical team commanders, wardens, and assistant wardens about what team members would wear and tactics they would use to conduct themselves and handle prisoners. The teams barged into cell blocks, loudly yelling and banging batons on railings. They instructed prisoners to get naked, after which they ordered a “reverse” strip-search — forcing prisoners to manipulate their own genitals and buttocks and then put their hands in their mouths. The prisoners were then ordered to get dressed, but without underwear. Handcuffed behind their backs in a painful thumbs-up position, they were marched in a “nuts to butts” fashion, with guards allegedly shoving them along the way to ensure their genitals came in contact with the rear-end of the prisoners in front of them.
Similar shakedowns in other state prisons led to lawsuits, including at least one in federal court for the Central District of Illinois. [See: PLN, Mar. 2022, p.46.] At the four downstate prisons, numerous prisoners filed lawsuits in federal court for the Southern District of Illinois, which consolidated them into this case. Plaintiffs then moved for class certification on their claims against 22 supervisory DOC officials.
The district court granted the motion on March 26, 2020, finding the prisoners alleged key common factual and legal questions: (1) whether supervisors violated the prisoners’ guarantee of freedom from cruel and unusual punishment; (2) whether the shakedowns were conducted as alleged; (3) whether there was a conspiracy to deprive prisoners of their rights; and (4) whether supervisors approved, facilitated and/or turned a blind eye to the resulting alleged constitutional violations. See: Ross v. Gossett, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52426 (S.D. Ill.).
Defendants appealed. But the Seventh Circuit found class certification was proper. It noted most of the supervisors’ arguments went to the merits of the claims against them — the wrong argument to make at this point, the Court said, since class certification hinged solely upon whether the prisoners’ claims met procedural requirements for commonality. Moreover, the prisoners satisfied that standard, so class-wide resolution was proper. Thus the district court’s order was affirmed. See: Ross v. Gossett, 33 F.4th 433 (7th Cir. 2022).
Defendants then asked for a rehearing before the full Seventh Circuit en banc, but that request was denied on July 6, 2022. See: Ross v. Gossett, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 18591 (7th Cir.).
The case has now returned to the district court, and PLN will report developments as they are available. As per the district court’s decision that was affirmed, class counsel is provided by Chicago attorneys Sarah Grady, Jon Loevy, Michael Kanovitz, Sam Heppell and Adair Crosley of Loevy & Loevy, as well as Alan Mills, Elizabeth Mazur and Nicole Schult of the Uptown People’s Law Center. See: Ross v. Gossett, USDC (S.D. Ill.), Case No. 3:15-cv-00309.
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