Friday, September 29, 2023
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Illuminated Prison Cells Could Leave State Liable

(CN) - Prison officials in Washington must face claims that their refusal to turn off the lights in segregation cells amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, the 9th Circuit ruled Thursday.

Neil Grenning, an inmate at the state's Airway Heights Corrections Center, claimed that he developed insomnia, migraine headaches and confusion while being held for nearly two weeks in the Special Management Unit (SMU), in which at least one light stays on all day and night, albeit covered with "a blue light-diffusing sleeve."

Grenning claimed that the light was nonetheless so bright that it penetrated "four layers of towel wrapped around his eyes."

Guards placed Grenning in the solitary cell pending an investigation into a fight in which he was allegedly involved. Prison officials contended that 24-hour illumination is needed for the protection of guards and prisoners alike, as the SMU is used to house those who pose a threat to themselves, others, security or orderliness, as well as those under investigation for the same.

Grenning claimed that the lighting violated his Eighth Amendment rights, but U.S. District Edward Shea in Spokane summarily ruled for the state. A divided three-judge appeals panel reversed on Thursday.

Noting that the 9th Circuit has found before that "adequate lighting is one of the fundamental attributes of 'adequate shelter' required by the Eighth Amendment," the panel found that "there is no legitimate penological justification for requiring inmates to suffer physical and psychological harm by living in constant illumination."

That being said, based on the record so far in this case, several questions of fact remain unanswered, including "how bright the lighting in Grenning's cell actually was."

The rather liberal criteria for housing an inmate in SMU also should have precluded summary judgment, the panel found.

"Even if it were possible for a defendant to defeat an Eighth Amendment conditions of confinement claim at summary judgment by showing a legitimate penological interest, defendants have failed to make such a showing in this case," Judge William Fletcher wrote for the panel. "The record shows that an individual may be placed in the SMU for a number of reasons, including reasons that do not appear to support a blanket policy of continuous lighting."

Grenning "could have been placed in the SMU because he attacked someone, because he was a victim of an attack, or because he was an innocent bystander caught up in a melee," Fletcher added.

"So far as the record shows, there is thus no indication that defendants' proffered justifications for constant illumination were relevant to Grenning," the opinion states.

On remand, the District Court must decide whether the prison officials have qualified immunity against Grenning's claim.

Judge Johnnie Rawlinson argued in dissent that the panel had the authority to answer that question in the affirmative.

Citing the 9th Circuit's recent ruling in Chappell v. Mandeville, in which the appeals court found that "constant illumination of an inmate's cell is unconstitutional only if no penological justification is provided for such illumination," Rawlison contended that the defendants had already made such a showing.

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