Federal District / Circuit Court Cases

This collection of Federal District Court/Circuit Court decisions relevant to solitary confinement was compiled and annotated by Solitary Watch Research Associates Daniel H. Goldman and Ryan Brimmer, students at the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse, Washington & Lee University School of Law.

* Starred cases deal with psychological/physical dichotomy for 8th amendment claims.

1. In re Pinaire, 46 F. Supp. 113 (N.D. Texas 1942)

2. Coffin v. Reichard, 143 F.2d 443 (9th Cir. 1944)

a. “A prisoner retains all the rights of an ordinary citizen except those expressly, or by necessary implication, taken from him by law.” 445

3. Johnson v. Dye,175 F.2d 250 (3rd Cir. 1949)

a. Third Circuit holds the 8th Amendment incorporated against the States.

4. In re Pickens, 101 F. Supp. 285 (Alaska 1951)

5. Stroud v. Swope, 187 F.2d 850 (1951)

a. “it is not the function of the courts to superintend the treatment and discipline of prisoners in penitentiaries, but only to deliver from imprisonment those who are illegally confined.” (851-2)

6. Sostre v. McGinnis, 442 F.2d 178 (1971)

a. New York case in which “2d Circuit focused primarily on the adequacy of the prisoner’s diet, his opportunity for exercise and personal hygiene, and access to therapy, reading materials, and communication with other prisoners in concluding that the conditions in this solitary confinement unit were “several notches above those truly barbarous and inhumane conditions” that courts had previously found unconstitutional.” (193-4)

7. Novak v. Beto, 453 F.2d 661, 665 (5th Cir. 1971)

a. Focus on physical hygienic conditions of solitary cell when determining 8th Amendment violation.

8. Jackson v. Allen, 376 F. Supp. 1393 (W.D. Ark. 1974)

9. Campise v. Hamilton, 382 F. Supp. 172 (D.C. Tex. 1974)

a. Successful solitary confinement is cruel and unusual claim. County jail in Texas with particularly abhorrent conditions. Withstood 5th Circuit appeal.

10. O’Brien v. Moriarty, 489 F.2d 941 (1st Cir. 1974)

a. Court rejects challenge to isolation conditions that had been based on prisoners’ psych reactions.

b.  Being cut off markedly from all others was not so severe as to be per so impermissible. (944)

11. LaReau v. McDougal, 473 F.2d 974 (2d Cir. 1974)

a. Connecticut prison’s isolation cells were particularly horrible. Court found 5 day sentences in the cells violated the 8th.

b. The strip cells went beyond “mere coerced stagnation” to actually “threatening an inmate’s sanity and severing his contacts with reality by placing him in a dark cell almost continuously day and night.” (p. 978)

12. Gregory v. Wyse, 512 F.2d 378 (10th Cir. 1975)

a. In considering question of point at which solitary confinement becomes cruel and unusual punishment, court made observation that in-prison punishment should be deemed cruel and unusual when it offends evolving standards of decency that mark progress of maturing society.

13. Newman v. Alabama, 559 F.2d 283 (5th Cir. 1977)

a. State’s provision of “reasonably adequate food, clothing, shelter, sanitation, medical care, and personal safety . . . ends its obligations under Amendment Eight.”

b. Court reluctant to examine psych effects of confinement

14. Laaman v. Helgemoe, 437 F. Supp. 269 (D.C. NH 1977)

a. Combination of total and devastating isolation, inadequate lighting, ventilation, plumbing, and space, and uncontrollable temperatures, made cells used for solitary confinement totally unfit for human habitation and comparable to medieval dungeon; as such, cells violated 8th and court ordered that they no longer be used for any purpose and established rules for treatment of prisoners in segregation or isolation.

15. Muhammad v. Rowe, 638 F.2d 693 (7th Cir. 1981)

a. 21 days in solitary claim returned to lower court for further findings of fact

16. Davenport v. DeRobertis, 844 F.2d 1310 (7th Cir. 1988)

a. Judge Posner wrote that the evolving nature of the Eighth Amendment means that “[t]he conditions in which prisoners are housed, like the poverty line, is a function of a society’s standard of living. As that standard rises, the standard of minimum decency of prison conditions, like the poverty line, rises too.”

17. Jordan v. Gardner, 986 F.2d 1521 (9th Cir. 1993)*

a. Holding that severe psych pain can violate the 8th.

18. Thomas v. Farley, 31 F.3d 557, 559 (7th Cir. 1994)*

a. “Mental torture is not an oxymoron, and has been held or assumed in a number of prisoner cases . . . to be actionable as cruel and unusual punishment.”

 19. Shakka v. Smith, 71 F.3d 162, 166 (4th Cir. 1995)*

a. Holding that a “significant . . . emotional injury” can constitute Eighth Amendment pain.”

20. Demaio v. Mann, 877 F. Supp. 89 (N.D. NY 1995)

21. Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146 (N.D. Cal. 1995)*

a. Mentally ill prisoners cannot be housed in supermax custody.

b. Gomez et. al., plaintiffs herein, brought action alleging improper confinement and care while inmates at Pelican Bay correctional facility. Among the many allegations, the inmates charged the state with 8th Amendment violations. The court said that medical and mental health care are conditions that are subject to an 8th Amendment analysis. Although inmates are entitled to sufficient medical/mental health care under the 8th Amendment, the treatment does not have to be “the best medical care available. Rather, to establish 8th Amendment liability, plaintiffs must demonstrate that prison officials are ‘deliberately indifferent’ to ‘serious’ medical needs of inmates.” This appears to be a very difficult standard to meet. First, the plaintiffs must demonstrate that either a “pattern of negligent conduct” or “systemic deficiencies” exist and that the defendants (1) knew the risk to inmate health, and (2) acted with disregard for this risk. “In short, plaintiffs must show that defendant consciously disregarded a substantial risk of serious harm to plaintiff’s health or safety. (Court quoting, Farmer, 114 S.Ct. at 1980). This case is a very long fact intensive decision. The court raises and discusses many issues regarding the inmates rights to adequate medical/mental health care. More important, this case is interesting as it concludes that while punishing inmates prison official must consider the possible mental health effects that such punishment could have. The Court also alluded to the fact that prison officials need to carefully consider its actions when punishing a known mentally ill patient.

22. Babcock v. White, 102 F.3d 267, 273 (7th Cir. 1996)*

a. Observing that “the Constitution does not countenance psychological torture merely because it fails to inflict physical injury.”

23. Ruiz v. Johnson, 37 F. Supp. 2d 855 (S.D. Texas, 1999), rev’d by 178 F.3d 385 (5th Cir. 1999)

a. Court prohibited mentally ill prisoners from being transferred to supermax.

b. Reversed by 5th Circuit.

24. Jones ‘El v. Berge, 164 F. Supp. 1096 (W.D. Wis., 2001)*

a. Mentally ill prisoners prevented from being transferred to supermax.

b. Prisoners in supermaxes who make repeated attempts to commit suicide or exhibit other serious psychotic symptoms are often not viewed as suffering serious mental illness but merely as manipulative, using suicide attempts as a tactic to get out of the supermax. (1107)

25. Parker v. James, 15 Fed. Appx. 670 (10th Cir. 2001)

a. 28 day solitary confinement challenge didn’t rise to cruel and unusual standard.

26. Delaney v. DeTella, 256 F.3d 679 (7th Cir. 2001)*

a. Claim can be based on the presence of a strong likelihood of psychological damage due to the denial of exercise privileges for 90 days.

27. Dixon v. Goord, 224 F. Supp. 2d 739 (S.D. N.Y. 2002)

a. The United States Supreme Court has set forth the minimum requirements of procedural due process that must be satisfied in prison disciplinary hearings: (i) advance written notice of the charges must be given to the inmate; (ii) the fact finder must prepare a written statement describing the evidence relied upon and the reasons for the determination; and (iii) inmates must be allowed to call witnesses and present documentary evidence at the proceedings. (744)

b. the deprivation of a state-created liberty interest does not rise to the level of a constitutional violation unless the punishment imposed amounts to an “atypical and significant hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life” (744). (citing standard from Sandin v. Connor (SCOTUS))

28. Sadler v. Young, 325 F. Supp. 2d 689 (W.D. Va. 2004)

a. Although the initial restraint of a prisoner who’d slapped a tray out of a guard’s hands did not violate the prisoner’s 8th or 14th Amendment rights, his continued restraint for 48 hours was without legitimate purpose.

29. Platt v. Brockenborough, 476 F. Supp. 2d 467 (E.D. Pa. 2007)

a. Prisoner’s allegations that he was placed in punitive segregation, denied the means to maintain a clean cell, was not permitted to shower regularly, and that he was shackled everywhere he went, failed to state a claim under 8th.

30. Dumpson v. McGinnis, 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 22453 (2009)

a. Prisoners are entitled to some exercise, but prison administrators may make exceptions for specific safety concerns.

31. Nunez v. Duncan, 9th Cir., no 04-36146, 1/11/10

a.  A court can read an exception into the exhaustion requirement of the Prison Litigation Reform Act in a case in which an inmate’s failure to exhaust his administrative remedies was the result of the actions of the warden.