By Sandra Hong, Staff Writer
Prison officials at California’s only supermax facility are entitled to qualified immunity in a civil rights suit alleging court-ordered welfare checks conducted around the clock deprived inmates of adequate sleep, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held on Friday.
The majority opinion by Judge Richard C. Tallman reverses an order by Chief District Court Judge Kimberly J. Mueller of the Eastern District of California. Circuit Judge Danielle J. Hunsaker joined in the majority opinion; dissenting, in part, was District Court Judge Roslyn O. Silver of the District of Arizona, sitting by designation.
Mueller’s order denied qualified immunity to Pelican Bay State Prison guards and supervisors after she found that inmate Jorge Andrade Rico had clearly established, in his lawsuit against prison officials, a right to prison conditions free of excessive noise, allowing for adequate sleep. For prison officials to ignore complaints of alleged violations of such rights was unconstitutional, Mueller determined.
In reversing Mueller’s order, Tallman said that while inmates have “general rights” to adequate sleep and prison conditions free of excessive noise, there was no previous caselaw addressing whether these rights applied to the specific circumstances and conditions at Pelican Bay, located in Crescent City.
“In circumstances like these, where the defendants were following court-ordered procedures to enhance inmate safety that are inherently loud, all Pelican Bay officials are entitled to qualified immunity from this civil rights suit,” Tallman concluded.
Tallman noted in his opinion that the specific design of Pelican Bay, primarily constructed of metal, steel, and concrete, contributes to the heightened noise during welfare checks.
“Even if Pelican Bay officials haphazardly implemented the welfare check system, no reasonable official in these circumstances would believe that creating additional noise while carrying out mandatory suicide checks for prisoner safety clearly violated plaintiff’s constitutional rights,” he said.
Inmate Welfare Checks
The “Guard One” system of inmate suicide-prevention checks was implemented at Pelican Bay in 2014. Under the system, guards are required to tap a metal wand on a metal disc attached to each cell door.
During the checks, which initially were conducted every 30 minutes then changed to every 45 minutes, guards run up and down metal stairs and metal doors swing open and slam shut.
Rico and other inmates filed an administrative grievance in 2015, asking prison officials to keep metals doors entering each pod of cells slightly open and for guards to make less noise while conducting checks. Rico filed additional requests for guards to tap the metal discs more quietly or affix a noise-dampening material on the wands.
Although Pelican Bay’s warden, Clark Ducart, directed the staff to make less noise during nighttime checks, Rico’s specific requests were rejected by prison supervisors, who told him there was little they could do about the noise. In his complaint, he alleges that constant sleep deprivation led to health problems such as anxiety, dizzy spells, abnormal heartbeat, and irregular breathing.
“Rico argues that dismissal at this stage is inappropriate because discovery is necessary to address factual questions including whether the checks were too loud for the inmates to sleep, whether officers caused noise through their ‘sloppy implementation of the checks,’ and whether the officers ‘were doing the best they could under the circumstances.’”
“We need not wait for the summary judgment stage; even taking every fact Rico pleads as true, under these circumstances, no reasonable officer would believe that creating additional noise while carrying out mandatory suicide checks for prisoner safety clearly violated Rico’s constitutional rights.”
Silver agreed that qualified immunity should be granted to the officers implementing welfare checks during the day, as well as to Ducart, who was not alleged to have knowledge that prison staff were disobeying orders to make less noise during nighttime checks.
But, Silver maintained, qualified immunity should not be granted to the other defendants. Such immunity is unavailable where conduct violates a clearly established constitutional right, she recited, noting:
“The majority does not dispute that sleep is one of life’s necessities.”
Silver pointed to Tallman’s observations about the Guard One system as “inherently noisy” and the design and construction of Pelican Bay making it difficult to quietly conduct welfare checks at night.
“Ultimately, these facts may be established on summary judgment or at trial, but when reviewing a denial of a motion to dismiss, unless those facts are in the complaint or inferred in the plaintiff’s favor, considering and relying on them on appeal is inappropriate,” she said. “Rico’s allegations thus describe an obvious deprivation of a constitutional right, which is sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.”
The case is Rico v. Ducart, 19-15541.
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