The Inmates Have a Right to be Protected
Columnist Les Gold says even inmates in Sing Sing have rights.
Two motions for summary judgment were filed in the United States District Court, S.D. New York regarding an electrical fire in the maximum security prison Sing Sing. The motions involved determining whether there were enough fire safety precautions taken by the defendants and if the plaintiffs exhausted their administrative remedies.
The plaintiffs were inmates housed in the prison’s largest housing block. On April 18, 2011, Sing was operating with a skeletal staff. At about 2 a.m. an electrical fire broke out in the basement of Housing Block C and knocked out the power to five buildings. A later investigation determined the fire occurred where the main power system is connected to the emergency power generator, disabling not just the main system, but the back-up system too.
The plaintiffs testified they were unaware of the origin and severity of the fire. Although Sing officials received notice of the fire from smoke detectors, no alarm sounded to alert the plaintiffs. Because the power outage rendered the public address system inoperable, no announcements were made. According to the defendants, the block’s cell doors can usually be opened simultaneously and remotely using the main power system or the back-up power system; however, because of the power outage affecting both the main system and the back-up system, the cells could only be opened manually. The parties disputed how long it took to release inmates from their cells.
While one of the defendants filed a timely grievance, the records indicate he did not appeal. He submitted a declaration that his grievance was denied, but no records were provided. Moreover, there is no evidence these plaintiffs’ grievances were consolidated with others concerning the fire. The courts found that in many instances the plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies and therefore their claims were dismissed.
Regarding the damages claim, the plaintiffs’ theory was that the defendants were deliberately indifferent to the risk of exposing plaintiffs to heavy smoke for several hours during the emergency evacuation.
The defendants argued they are entitled to summary judgment on these conditions of confinement claims, because, as a matter of law, the plaintiffs have not satisfied either the objective or the mens rea components of their Eighth Amendment claim.
The court disagreed holding that the plaintiffs’ damages claim cannot be resolved on summary judgment because genuine issues of material fact exist as to whether the plaintiffs’ emergency evacuation was sufficiently serious, and whether some of the defendants had a sufficiently culpable state of mind, are entitled to qualified immunity, and were personally involved in the evacuation.
The court found there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether defendants acted with deliberate indifference. The court could not determine whether it was objectively reasonable for defendants to believe their acts were lawful. The state defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity was denied.
The plaintiffs also argued that Sing Sing’s current fire safety regime falls short of constitutional standards, with an inadequate fire safety plan and not enough fire drills; a lack of physical improvements; and in the event of a power outage, a lack of a block-wide automated cell release mechanism or a working public address system. The court found the plaintiffs had not raised a genuine issue of material fact that inmates are currently being subjected to unreasonable safety risks. The state defendants are entitled to summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ claims for injunctive relief.