(CN) – The 9th Circuit vacated a $39,000 jury verdict against prison officials accused of denying an inmate’s right to outdoor exercise during four extended lockdowns over a two-year period of prison violence.
From 2002 to 2004, CSP-Sacramento, a maximum-security prison, experienced a rash of violence that led officials to impose four extended lockdowns. The first lockdown happened after 11 Hispanic inmates attacked four correctional officers, nearly killing one of them. Inmates were confined to their cells while officers investigated the violence and its reverberating effects.
“Based on what they learned, officials gradually eased restrictions on specific gangs, ethnic and racial groups, restoring outdoor exercise sooner for inmates who they believed pose less risk of further violence,” Chief Judge Alex Kozinski explained in the 2-1 panel decision.
Similar attacks on officers and inmates necessitated three more lockdowns. Gangs were typically at the root of the violence, and they often recruited unaffiliated inmates of the same race or ethnicity to help them wage their battles. As a result, prison officials were forced to confine broader groups of inmates.
Inmate Gregory Norwood, a black prisoner not affiliated with any gang, claimed the lockdowns violated his Eighth Amendment right to outdoor exercise.
A jury agreed that the prison defendants had violated Norwood’s rights, but concluded that he suffered no harm or injury. It awarded him $11 in nominal damages and $39,000 in punitive damages. U.S. District Judge Garland Burrell tacked on more than $23,000 in attorney fees.
Prison officials claimed the judge erred by rejecting a jury instruction that would’ve told jurors to give prison officials “deference” in adopting security measures.
Tossing the instruction, Burrell said the term “deference” was “undefined” and would not be “clear to a lay person.”
“But ‘deference’ is not Urdu or Klingon; it is a common English word,” Chief Judge Kozinski wrote. He vacated the verdict, saying it had been tainted by the lower court’s error.
“We would normally remand for a new trial,” the chief judge added, “but as defendants are entitled to qualified immunity, that is not necessary here.”
The panel found the lockdowns reasonable in light of the rampant prison violence. “We decline Norwood’s invitation to micromanage officials whose expertise in prison administration far exceeds our own,” Kozinski wrote.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Thomas argued that the verdict was fair, and that the officials were not entitled to immunity.
“The jury’s finding that defendants acted with reckless disregard to the risk to Norwood’s health and safety leaves no room to conclude the defendants could reasonably have believed their actions lawful,” Thomas wrote.