Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Seventh Circuit: “Our prison system is not the gulag”

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The procedural history: Indiana inmate files lawsuit challenging his work assignment; district court dismisses his suit for failure to state a claim; Seventh Circuit panel of Posner, Wood, and Williams reverses and remands for further proceedings. Judge Posner’s opinion is worth quoting at length:

Smith was assigned to uproot tree stumps. Workers on the stump crew were forced, the complaint alleges (and since the complaint was dismissed on its face, we take its allegations to be true, though of course without vouching for their truth), to work in “freezing cold” with axes, pickaxes, and shovels and without having received any safety instruction or protective gear—not even gloves. Stump-crew workers are alleged to be at risk of getting hit by the blades of their tools because the heads of the tools slip from their handles as the prisoners hack away without proper training. Smith developed blisters from handling these heavy tools in the cold without gloves. …

The district court dismissed the Eighth Amendment claim, insofar as it complained about failure to provide gloves for outdoor work in cold weather, on the ground that Smith’s blisters were nothing more than “the usual discomforts of winter” rather than deprivations of the “minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities,” and brushed off his fear of dangerous working conditions …

Although no one much likes to work out of doors during the winter, the normal discomfort that such work involves does not make the work cruel and unusual punishment. But that is provided that the worker is properly clothed. Smith does not specify the temperature in which he was working without gloves and got blisters on his hands but it was during the winter of 2008-2009, and the average temperature at the location of the Branchville Correctional Facility in Indiana where he was imprisoned was only 29.6 degrees Fahrenheit in January (it was 35.2 in December, 38.8 in February, and 50.2 in March); on January 16 it plunged to -7.

“The Eighth Amendment ‘forbids knowingly compelling an inmate to perform labor that is beyond the inmate’s strength, dangerous to his or her life or health, or unduly painful.’ “ Ambrose v. Young, 474 F.3d 1070, 1075 (8th Cir.2007). It forbids forcing prisoners to “perform physical labor which is beyond their strength, endangers their lives or health, or causes undue pain.” Berry v. Bunnell, 39 F.3d 1056, 1057 (9th Cir.1994) (per curiam). Failure to provide a prisoner required to work out of doors with minimal protective clothing, obviously including gloves, can therefore violate the Eighth Amendment, as countless cases have found. [cites numerous cases]

The “usual discomforts of winter” to which the district judge referred do not include handling heavy tools with gloveless hands in subzero weather. Our prison system is not the gulag. Smith’s blisters could have been caused by his handling the stump removal tools without gloves, or could even have been precursors to or consequences of frostbite—the record does not say. But the allegations of the complaint are sufficient to preclude dismissal for failure to state a claim.

Full docket info: Smith v. Peters, et al., No. 10-1013, 7th Cir., January 19, 2011; opinion PDF here.

Written by sara

February 14, 2011 at 10:39 am

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