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Inmate Can’t Sue Over Smuggled Drugs Watch

(CN) - Prison guards have immunity from claims that they crossed the line in trying to catch a man with drugs smuggled in with his fiancee's weave, the 9th Circuit ruled.

Federal courts have not clearly established that forcing an inmate to endure constant artificial light and a bed without a mattress violates the Eighth Amendment, according to the Thursday ruling.

Officials at the state prison in Sacramento put Rex Chappell on the six-day contraband watch after they found unlabeled eye-drop bottles in his cell that contained methamphetamine.

Guards suspected that Chappell's fiancee had smuggled the drugs into the jail in a "ponytail hairpiece" that was discovered in a trash can near the visiting room.

They also found "spandex undergarments" in the women's bathroom that tested positive, as did the weave, for cocaine residue, the court explained.

Chappell claimed in a federal complaint that the conditions of the contraband watch amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

The ruling relates what he endured in some detail.

"Contraband watch, also known as a 'body cavity search,' is a temporary confinement during which a prisoner is closely monitored and his bowel movements searched to determine whether he has ingested or secreted contraband in his digestive tract," the ruling states. "Under prison procedures, the prisoner is first searched and then dressed so as to prevent him from excreting any contraband and removing it from his clothing. The prisoner is placed in two pairs of underwear, one worn normally and the other backwards, with the underwear taped at the waist and thighs. The prisoner is also placed in two jumpsuits, one worn normally and the other backwards, with the suits taped at the thighs, ankles, waist, and upper arms. The tape on both the underwear and the jump suits is not meant to touch the skin; it is used to close off any openings in the clothing. The prisoner is then placed in waist chain restraints, which are handcuffs that are separated and chained to the side of the prisoner's waist. This prevents the prisoner from being able to reach his rectum. The waist chain restraints are adjustable and can be lengthened if necessary. The prisoner is then placed in a surveillance cell where prison staff watch the prisoner at all times. The lights are kept on in the cell to allow staff to see the prisoner. To prevent the inmate from concealing contraband, the cell does not have any furniture other than a bed without a mattress.

"The prisoner is given a blanket, and receives three meals a day and beverages. When the prisoner needs to defecate he must notify the prison staff who will bring him a plastic, moveable toilet chair. Once he uses the chair, the staff will search the waste to determine if it contains contraband."

While Chappell did not explicitly claim that he lost sleep because of the constant light, he said that "the waist restraints were not loosened for meals, forcing him to "eat [his] food like a dog; the temperature in the cell was very high; the cell was unventilated; and the lights were 'very bright,'" according to the ruling.

Chappell also alleged that the conditions "did in fact torture [him] mentally" and that he felt like he "deteriorat[ed] mentally" during contraband watch," the court summarized (brackets in ruling).

U.S. District Judge Garland Burrell, in Sacramento, rejected most of Chappell's claims but advanced his Eighth Amendment and due process claims against California State Prison guards R. Mandeville and T. Rosario.

A divided three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit reversed Thursday.

"Since, at the time Chappell's contraband watch took place, no court had ruled on whether contraband watch constitutes a legitimate penological purpose that would justify continuous lighting, and Chappell was subjected to continuous lighting for only seven days and did not claim that he was deprived of sleep or intentionally kept awake, Mandeville and Rosario did not have fair notice that their actions were unconstitutional," Judge Jay Bybee wrote for the majority.

In a partial dissent, Judge Marsha Berzon argued that the majority considered Chappell's claims too narrowly.

She noted that the 9th Circuit had established in 1996's Keenan v. Hall that "there is no legitimate penological justification for requiring [inmates] to suffer physical and psychological harm by living in constant illumination." (Brackets in ruling.)

"While Chappell did not expressly allege that the conditions of contraband watch caused him 'grave sleeping problems,' as did the prisoner in Keenan v. Hall, the statements in Chappell's amended complaint permit an inference that his sleep was disturbed," Berzon wrote.

"Whether constant illumination violates the Eighth Amendment in a particular case is a fact-specific inquiry," she added. "But contrary to the majority's suggestion, officials do not enjoy qualified immunity simply because the precise facts at issue in their particular case have not been addressed previously. Officials can 'still be on notice that their conduct violates established law even in novel factual circumstances.'"

In this case, she wrote, "a reasonable officer would have known that, in combination, the twenty-four-hour bright light, the absence of a mattress, and the extensive bodily restraints risked depriving Chappell of sleep, in violation of the Eighth Amendment."

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