Cook County Inmate Can Sue Over Jail Conditions

     CHICAGO (CN) – An Army veteran can sue the Cook County sheriff for feeding inmates nutritionally inadequate food and contaminated water, the Seventh Circuit ruled.
     As a U.S. Army veteran, Donald Smith was placed in a special program at the Cook County Jail while he awaited trial.
     Smith was given a job in the jail laundry, was allowed to live in a special wing for veterans apart from the general population, and was granted the right to have his case heard in a distinct, veterans’ court.
     But in a federal lawsuit, Smith claims he was paid less than federal minimum wage for his work – $3 a day – and subjected to inhuman working conditions requiring him to stand for eight hours in a “hot, smelly room.”
     He also claimed the jail subjected him to inhuman conditions of confinement – the water is allegedly contaminated, food portions too small, cells infested with rodents and insects, and Smith had no access to outdoor recreation.
     Breakfast at the jail is a single egg, a half cup of cereal with milk, and a small packet of Kool-Aid, according to the complaint. Lunch, a peanut butter sandwich and some cookies. Smith did not say what he eats for dinner.
     A federal judge dismissed Smith’s claims, holding that he had “no constitutional right to be paid for his jail job assignment at all, let alone in accordance with minimum wage laws,” and that his complaints related to his conditions of confinement were not specific enough.
     On appeal, the Seventh Circuit revived Smith’s food and contaminated water claims.
     “Smith alleges that ‘the [correctional officers] do not drink the water yet we have to and it is a known fact that the water in the jail is polluted and contains high levels of alpha + beta radiation also cyanide and lead,'” U.S. Circuit Judge William Bauer said, writing for the three-judge panel.
     “Certainly, the presence of contaminants such as cyanide and lead may render water unsafe to drink. Thus, accepting Smith’s allegations as true, as we must at this stage, we cannot say Smith’s allegations of contaminated water fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted,” Bauer continued.
     However, the court affirmed that Smith cannot sue over his pittance wages for work performed at the jail laundry.
     “The glaring problem with Smith’s arguments is that he chose on his own volition to participate in the veterans’ program and avail himself of its benefits, including the ability to work and earn wages,” Bauer said. “In other words, his ‘servitude’ was not involuntary, nor can it be considered punishment.”
     Smith argued that he felt compelled to work because otherwise he would lose other special privileges granted to veterans, such as living apart from the general population.
     But “Smith did not have a right to these special privileges, however, and therefore the loss of these privileges does not constitute punishment in the constitutional sense,” the opinion concluded.
     U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Posner joined the opinion, but said he would also reinstate Smith’s claim as to the alleged insect and rodent infestation at the jail.
     Smith “alleged that the mice and cockroaches were in his food and that he developed scabies – a highly contagious skin infestation, productive of severe itching, and sometimes referred to as ‘the seven-year itch’ – from the unsanitary conditions,” Posner wrote. “What more should be required to state a claim of punishment? That he keep a record of the number of his meals that he shared with the vermin?”
     Posner said that the lower court should have denied the jail’s motion to dismiss, and allowed counsel to depose plaintiff and possibly other inmates and jail employees about conditions at the jail.

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