Prisoners’ Rights

Pennsylvania District Court Denies Home Confinement to Inmate Waiting for Sentencing

United States v Stevens, CR 19-350-02, 2020 WL 1888968 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 16, 2020).

Written by: Nathaniel Belluso

The District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied plaintiff Abid Stevens’ motion for release pending imposition of sentencing. U.S. v. Stevens, CR 19-350-02, 2020 WL 1888968, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 16, 2020). The 45-year-old Stevens argued that, due to his diabetes, he should be placed in home confinement prior to his sentencing. Stevens had been detained at the Federal Detention Center (FDC) since February 4th, 2020 with a sentencing date scheduled for May 20th, 2020. Id. at *1 Stevens’ motion is based on the Eighth Amendment’s “Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause”. Id. at *5.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits any punishment which violates civilized standards and concepts of humanity and decency.” Id. (quoting Thomas v. Tice, 948 F.3d 133, 138 (3d Cir. 2020)). Courts have said that the “Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause” does not apply to inmates until they have been both convicted and sentenced of their crimes. Id. at *5. Other courts have ruled that the Constitution’s due process rights entitled an unsentenced inmate to “no less protection than a sentenced inmate” would receive under the Eighth Amendment. Id. (quoting Fuentes v. Wagner, 206 F.3d 335, 341-42 (3d Cir. 2000)).

Stevens argued that keeping him incarcerated would put him at risk of “suffering serious illness for which no effective treatment can be provided [at the FDC]” in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments. Id. at *5. Stevens pointed to precedent for the proposition that prison authorities are forbidden from acting with “deliberate indifference to inmates’ serious medical needs.” Id. at *6.

The Court ultimately rejected Stevens’ claim and denied his motion to be released. The Court noted that Stevens did not argue that he had been denied adequate medical care or that officials at the FDC were being “deliberately indifferent” to any of the inmates’ serious medical needs due to COVID-19. Id. Furthermore, no positive cases of COVID-19 were reported at the FDC among the staff or inmates as of April 13th, 2020. Id. at *2. Additionally, the record showed that the FDC adopted procedures specifically to protect the inmates from COVID-19. Because Stevens was unable to show “deliberate indifference” toward his medical needs and based on the protocols put in place at the FDC, his motion was denied. Id. at *6. The Court did allow Stevens to file a second motion for release if he had new or additional evidence. Id.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent in support of inmates seeking safer prison conditions during pandemic

Valentine v. Collier (Sotomayor Dissent) (2020).

Written by: Esme Devenney

In this case, the older men imprisoned inside the Wallace Texas Pack Unit sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for the Pack Unit’s failure to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The evidence submitted by the plaintiffs at trial showed that the facility was not following its own guidelines in response to COVID-19. For example, a janitor testified that cleaning solution would run out halfway through his shift, just as it would before the pandemic. Valentine v. Collier, 140 S.Ct. 1598 (Mem) (2020) (Sotomayor, J., dissenting). The District Court found the men provided sufficient evidence to show the prison’s conduct demonstrated deliberate indifference in violation of the 8th Amendment’s guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit issued a stay of the trial court’s injunction, which would have required the prison to mitigate the harm caused to inmates. The Supreme Court then denied the inmate’s application to vacate the stay. The Court agreed with the Fifth Circuit that the prison would likely be able to prove that the men inside the Pack Unit did not exhaust the internal grievance procedure required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”). The PLRA requires people imprisoned to exhaust institutional grievance procedures before having the opportunity to file a claim in federal court. The PLRA practically prevents people from filing a claim against the facility where they are imprisoned. The Court’s decision reaffirming PLRA’s demanding exhaustion requirements will thus shield prisons from 8th Amendment liability during COVID-19.

The Covid-Con Law blog provides you with Justice Sotomayor’s dissent. Justice Sotomayor highlights the egregious implications of the Valentine decision: a prison’s grievance procedure that has the potential to be considered inexhaustible. The Justice’s dissent cites Ross v. Blake, 578 U.S. 1850 (2016), for an alternative interpretation of PLRA in which “the PLRA requires exhaustion only of ‘available’ judicial remedies.” Collier, 140 at 1599 (quoting Id). Justice Sotomayor then clarifies how the Ross holding could impact COVID-19 related grievances: “[I]n these unprecedented circumstances, where an inmate faces an imminent risk of harm that the grievance process cannot or does not answer, the PLRA’s textual exception could open the courthouse doors where they would otherwise stay closed.” Collier, 140 at 1560. 

A dissent may not be “good law” (this means dissents do not create precedent a lower court is bound to follow), however, dissents are commonly used as frameworks for future counterarguments. Justice Sotomayor’s dissent justly pushes the discussion around prisoner’s rights in a more progressive direction. Justice Sotomayor’s dissent in Valentine will hopefully reshape how future Justices interpret the PLRA in a public health crisis.  

At the end of her dissent, Justice Sotomayor posits that a society’s worth may be measured by the quality of its prisons. Unfortunately, the Fifth Circuit’s stay order and the Supreme Court’s refusal to vacate the stay means that the risk the coronavirus poses to incarcerated people will continue to be reviewed at a glacial pace.