Flimsy Reasons for Prolonged Lockdowns

Flimsy Reasons for Prolonged Lockdowns

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held that an Illinois prisoner’s complaint that frequent lockdowns for substantial periods of time deprived him of exercise and caused him various health problems stated an Eighth Amendment claim. However, the Court found that he failed to state a due process claim concerning the loss of his monthly stipend due to the lockdowns.

The appellate ruling followed a district court’s dismissal, under 28 U.S.C § 1915A, of a civil rights complaint filed by Menard Correctional Center (MCC) prisoner Gregory J. Turley. The dismissal addressed Turley’s Eighth Amendment claims but not his Fourteenth Amendment claim.

The Seventh Circuit determined that Turley had exhausted his administrative remedies and had brought his action in a timely manner, noting that Illinois has a “two-year statute of limitations, which is tolled while the prisoner exhausts the administrative grievance process.” As he was not procedurally barred, the Court of Appeals turned to the merits of the case.

Turley, serving a life sentence, was classified as a “low-aggression offender” and housed in a unit of similarly classified prisoners. Between January 7, 2008, and October 4, 2010, there were 25 lockdowns imposed at the MCC. The longest lasted 81 days, and there were 534 total lockdown days, which amounted to lockdown status for “more than 50% of the period in question.”

The lockdowns, Turley argued, were “often imposed for non-penologically-related purposes, such as isolated fights between two inmates from other cell houses, rumors of a potential fight or for no reason at all.” He further contended “the excessive use of lockdowns arose out of a conspiracy among prison officials and union employees to create a staff shortage and negotiate a pay raise.”

Additionally, he alleged “a conspiracy to exaggerate prison response to minor incidents, or no incidents at all, in order to allow staff to take a vacation and/or to psychologically punish all prisoners for the misconduct of a few.” Finally, he claimed the lockdown periods resulted in his $10 monthly idle pay stipend being withheld, depriving him of due process.

The Seventh Circuit initially found the district court had wrongly concluded that Turley failed to list the specific periods of lockdown confinement at issue. It then rejected the state’s reliance on a lockdown case involving a single prisoner, Pearson v. Ramos, 237 F.3d 881 (7th Cir. 2001) [PLN, Oct. 2001, p.18]. In doing so, the appellate court rejected the notion of “an ironclad rule that a denial of yard privileges shorter than 90 consecutive days cannot be the basis for an Eighth Amendment claim.”

Rather, the Court of Appeals wrote it had previously explained the “norm of proportionality” should be applied in such cases and that a lockdown not exceeding 90 days could violate the norm if it were “imposed … for some utterly trivial infraction of the prison’s disciplinary rules.”

In this case, the Court said it was “confronted with a pattern of prison-wide lockdowns, which Turley alleges occurred for flimsy reasons or no reason at all.” He alleged serious injuries resulting from the inability to exercise outside or in his small cell, in the form of “irritable bowel syndrome, severe stress, headaches, and tinnitus.”

While the appellate court held that prison officials were made aware of Turley’s Eighth Amendment claims through his grievances and prior lawsuits by other MCC prisoners, it found he had a post-deprivation remedy for the stipend claim through the Illinois Court of Claims; thus, his due process claim failed. The district court’s judgment was reversed in part as to Turley’s Eighth Amendment claims and affirmed as to his due process claim, and the case remains pending on remand. See: Turley v. Rednour, 729 F.3d 645 (7th Cir. 2013).

(Published by Prison Legal News; used by permission)