Okay, this is no laughing matter, but we just coined the title that way. This is extremely serious and concerns the health and well-being of prisoners, who are obviously held against their will, and of course many of whom may be quite innocent, as discovered on a regular basis by the court and nonprofits.
Whether a genuine offender, or an innocent victim of the process, no human deserves cruel and unusual punishment, and that is what it amounts to confined persons if their prison cells are unhealthy and infested with mice and roaches. And this humane recognition of the issue comes from the 7th U.S. Circuit, at last, since this is a problem that should have been officially recognized centuries ago.
On Thursday, writing for a panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, Circuit Judge Richard Posner held that heavy infestation of a prison cell with mice and cockroaches may violate the U.S. constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. However, Judge Posner also noted, that Calvin Thomas, who brought the case and is serving a 7-year prison term, could not recover damages, because of the state not waiving its immunity.
Thomas, 51, had alleged that he was compelled to suffer unhealthy conditions in his cell at the Vienna Correction Center in Illinois, because his cell had been infested with pests and rainwater came through a missing window pane. His lawsuit and claims were summarily dismissed by U.S. District Judge G. Patrick Murphy, who found that the state did not waive its immunity, and that the complainant had failed to allege any harm.
Though the three-judge panel agreed with the lower court on the matter of state immunity, the appeals court did not agree with the issue of failing to allege harm by the complainant. The appeals court held the lower court was wrong to assume that the “creation of a mere hazard to health” could never result in violating the Eighth Amendment. Posner said that damages could be justified even if a prisoner escaped disease or distress in case of “heavy, protracted infestation” as it was “pretty obvious” that living in a small cell with large numbers of mice and cockroaches could cause psychological harm.
Posner further observed that depending upon the nature of the infestation and the known psychological sensitivities of a prisoner, “a trier of fact might reasonably conclude that the prisoner had been subjected to harm sufficient to support a claim of cruel and unusual punishment even if he had not contracted a disease or suffered any physical pain.”
Though 7th Circuit decisions are law only in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, the opinion can be cited by other courts in the nation.
The case is Thomas v. Illinois et al, 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 12-2095.