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Inmate Sues Prison Officials After Dumpster Incident

Inmate Sues Prison Officials After Dumpster Incident

Prominent and easily understood warning alerts are effective in avoiding deaths and minimizing injuries throughout society—even in the slammer.

CAUTION

               Do Not Climb In, On or Occupy This Container For Any Purpose 

WARNING 

            For Your Safety, No Dumpster Diving! Not Responsible for Personal Injuries.

Safety and warning labels help keep consumers, employees and the public mindful of dangerous situations that may arise. Whether it’s potentially unsafe aspects of work equipment or a product itself, prominent and easily understood alerts are effective in avoiding deaths and minimizing injuries throughout our society. Even in the slammer.

Incarcerated individuals lose autonomy and many privileges for the sake of order, discipline and security in a correctional facility. Nevertheless, all prisoners retain basic rights needed to survive and to sustain a relatively reasonable way of life. Some of these rights are protected by the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits federal, state and local governments from imposing cruel and unusual punishments. And inmates can ask courts to vindicate those rights.

Ezra French, confined at the Green Bay Correctional Institution in Wisconsin, sued three prison officials in federal district court for violating the Eighth Amendment. French was injured after he reluctantly obeyed a corrections officer who had ordered him to compress cardboard in a recycling bin. The court dismissed French's lawsuit because it did not present a valid legal claim. Last month, a federal appeals court upheld the ruling.

French alleged that he was working on the yard crew when a guard directed him and another inmate to climb inside a recycling bin and flatten its cardboard contents. A third inmate reminded the guard that under the prison's rules, inmates were not permitted inside dumpsters. Moreover, a sign on the dumpster warned against climbing inside. The officer nevertheless insisted that the men do as he had instructed.  

The task proceeded uneventfully until French attempted to climb out of the dumpster. Doing so, he fell to the ground and hurt his back. He sought medical attention and was taken to the prison's health services unit. There, he was X-rayed, given ibuprofen and received a four-day excused absence from work. Following the mishap, he received minimal medical attention but still experienced constant pain and suffering. 

French contacted a fellow inmate who serves as a complaint examiner and told him about the dumpster incident. Initially, the examiner said that "no incident report was written," but later corrected himself and said that such a report had been filled out. It contained, among other things, a denial by the corrections officer that he had told the inmates to flatten the cardboard from inside the dumpster. As the examiner saw the matter, it was merely "one person’s word against another’s,” and he dismissed French's complaint.

Seeking damages for his injury, French took action against the corrections officer, complaint examiner and the prison's warden under the federal law that allows suits against individuals who, while acting “under color of” state or local law, have deprived someone of rights, privileges or immunities created by the U.S. Constitution or federal statutes.  

Deliberate indifference to a prisoner's serious illness or injury can be the basis of a federal lawsuit. However, a successful claim requires more than ordinary lack of due care for one's interests or safety. An inmate must prove that prison officials acted with utter disregard for a substantial risk of serious damage to his health.

In dismissing French’s claim, the district judge gave two reasons why the corrections officer was not deliberately indifferent to French's safety. First, even if an order that French climb into the dumpster violated prison rules, "it was not . . . inherently dangerous." Second, the officer got immediate medical attention for French after his fall. As for the other two defendants, the judge found no allegations as to how the complaint examiner or the warden violated French’s rights or contributed to his injury.

On appeal, French unsuccessfully argued that he received inadequate medical care in violation of the Eighth Amendment. For one thing, he never claimed that the three defendants (all of them non-medical personnel) ignored his requests for medical care. On the contrary, he admitted that the only defendant who knew that he needed care—the corrections officer—enabled him to get the X-rays, medication and days off.

For another, he did not allege that any defendant had reason to believe that this care was inadequate. Indeed, non-medical staff who defer to the judgment of medical professionals are seldom held liable. Lastly, although French alleged that he still feels pain from the fall, the appellate panel noted that the Eighth Amendment provides no guarantee that an inmate must be free of pain following proper medical treatment.

French next argued that the corrections officer violated the Eighth Amendment by ordering him into the recycling dumpster to crush cardboard. To be successful, such a claim would require an imminent and substantial risk of harm, almost certain to happen. “We will assume that such a risk would arise if the officer had no idea about the dumpster's contents, for then ordering an inmate inside of it to compress trash that might include sharp metal, rancid food, or glass shards would reflect deliberate indifference,” said the appellate panel. “But French alleges that the bin contained only recyclable cardboard, and climbing onto and off of a bundle of cardboard is not sure or very likely to cause . . . needless suffering and give rise to . . .  imminent dangers.  *   *   *   French replies that the officer violated the prison's own rules and ignored the dumpster's posted notice, but a violation of these standards does not in itself amount to deliberate indifference under the Eighth Amendment,” the opinion continued.   

Finally, French charged the examiner and the prison warden (who signed off on the grievance denial) with a “malicious” refusal to resolve his grievance in his favor and with covering up the misconduct of the corrections officer. This allegation stemmed from the examiner contradicting himself about whether someone reported his fall and choosing to accept the officer's story.  

As the examiner and the warden “did not create the peril” French faced in the dumpster “or do anything that increased the peril, or make it harder for French to get medical treatment,” they did not violate the Eighth Amendment, the appeals court concluded.

French v. Eckstein, No. 18-1768, 7th Circ., March 6, 2019

Barry Shanoff is a Bethesda, Md., attorney and general counsel of the Solid Waste Association of North America.

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