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Lareau v. Macdougall

decided: December 15, 1972.


Moore, Smith and Timbers, Circuit Judges. Moore, Circuit Judge (dissenting).

Author: Timbers

TIMBERS, Circuit Judge:

This appeal presents again questions which are being raised with increasing frequency by state prisoners with respect to alleged unconstitutional conduct by state prison officials. The issues are raised here in the context of alleged violations of a state prisoner's First and Eighth Amendment rights in connection with his confinement in a strip cell at the Connecticut state prison.

Appellant LaReau, presently an inmate of the Connecticut Correctional Institution at Somers, Connecticut,*fn1 appeals from a judgment for defendants entered on May 25, 1971 after a four day trial on the merits in the District Court for the District of Connecticut, T. Emmet Clarie, District Judge. The judgment dismissed LaReau's action brought under the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1970), and its jurisdictional implementation, 28 U.S.C. § 1343 (1970), seeking equitable relief and $50,000 damages for alleged violations of his rights under the First Amendment (free exercise of religion clause) and the Eighth Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment clause), as well as other alleged constitutional violations not raised on appeal.*fn2 After trial, Judge Clarie filed a well reasoned opinion setting forth detailed findings of fact and conclusions of law, 354 F. Supp. 1133 (D.Conn.1971), which we affirm in all respects except as indicated below. In short, we affirm on the First Amendment claim and reverse and remand on the Eighth Amendment claim.


Appellant's Eighth Amendment claim is that a disciplinary measure imposed upon him while imprisoned at the Connecticut Correctional Institution at Somers, namely, his confinement in a socalled "strip cell", constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

The facts are as follows.*fn3 On February 3, 1970, correctional officers found in LaReau's possession certain contraband items, including what was variously described by witnesses as "a rope fashioned from parts of a towel" or towels or "a string made from the edges of bed sheets". Because LaReau at that time was in punitive segregation, these items were contraband under prison regulations. A disciplinary proceeding followed on February 5. LaReau was ordered confined in a strip cell for an "indefinite period". He in fact served five days in the strip cell, from February 6 to February 11.*fn4 He contends that the strip cell in which he was confined is per se unconstitutional or, alternatively, that it was grossly excessive punishment for his violation. We hold, under the circumstances of this case, that his confinement in the strip cell violated his Eighth Amendment rights.

The strip cell was described by witnesses at the trial as follows. Its dimensions are six feet wide, ten feet deep and eight feet high, approximately the same size as other cells in the prison. The cell has an outer door made of solid steel and an inner door made of steel bars, with a space of two feet between the two doors. The outer door has a two square foot window at eyelevel which can be covered by a metal plate. Prison officials testified that the window usually is not closed unless the prisoner creates a disturbance. The walls and floor of the cell are cement. The walls have no windows. There is a 100 watt light outside the cell which shines through a hole at the rear of the cell and can be turned on and off only by the guard. Judge Clarie found that this light was turned on for LaReau only at meal times and when he was allowed to write. Thus, it appears that LaReau for substantial periods of time was in almost total darkness when the light was off and the window in the door was closed. He was also in total silence since the walls and door did not permit transmission of sound.

The cell contained no sink, water fountain or commode. The only facility for disposing of human waste was a device called a "Chinese toilet". It was merely a hole in the floor in the corner of the cell covered with a grate. It was flushed with water by a manually-controlled valve operated from outside the cell.

A prisoner confined to a strip cell apparently is permitted to have a toothbrush and toothpaste upon request. It is normal practice for the prisoner to receive three meals per day. A glass of water is given at least twice daily. A mattress is provided between 3 P.M. and 8 A.M. and blankets are supplied when the room temperature so requires.

The prisoner is not allowed to have reading materials (they would be useless in the darkness anyway), except a Bible upon request. He is given no opportunity to exercise. He has no one to talk to or communicate with in any way except that he is permitted to write. A prisoner can be confined in such a cell for a maximum of eight days, but that period can be extended upon approval by the Commissioner of Corrections.

The cruel and unusual punishment clause does not forbid all excessive or severe penalties. See Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660, 8 L. Ed. 2d 758, 82 S. Ct. 1417 (1962).*fn5 Nor does it give constitutional dimension to the theories of penologists on what is the most appropriate disposition of an offender; the language of the clause is ill-suited to the performance of such a task. It condemns only that punishment which is "barbarous" or "shocking to the conscience". See Church v. Hegstrom, 416 F.2d 449, 451 (2 Cir. 1969). And the "conscience" the clause is concerned with is the collective conscience of our society, not the conscience of judges or prison officials as individuals. See Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101, 2 L. Ed. 2d 630, 78 S. Ct. 590 (1958).

Courts must be particularly careful not to intercede needlessly on behalf of an inmate engaged in a dispute with prison administrators. See Landman v. Peyton, 370 F.2d 135, 141 (4 Cir. 1966); Cullum v. California Dept. of Corrections, 267 F. Supp. 524 (N.D.Cal.1967). The Eighth Amendment should not be used to divest prison authorities of the administrative discretion necessary to maintain order and discipline in penal institutions. Unless a prisoner is exemplarily punished for violating a prison regulation, he and other prisoners will not be deterred from committing further offenses; and the determination of what punishment is effective and fair considering the nature of the offense and the character of the offender ordinarily should be left to the informed judgment of prison authorities. But prison officials, no less than sentencing judges, are bound by the strictures of the Eighth Amendment. Disciplinary measures that violate civilized standards of human decency are proscribed.

We hold that the conditions to which LaReau was subjected in the strip cell fall below the irreducible minimum of decency required by the Eighth Amendment. Enforced isolation and boredom are permissible methods of discipline, although they might not remain so if extended over a long period of time. But the conditions here went beyond mere coerced stagnation. We cannot approve of threatening an inmate's sanity and severing his contacts with reality by placing him in a dark cell almost continuously day and night. Nor can we find any justification for denying a man the ability to maintain his personal cleanliness. What is most offensive to this Court was the use of the "Chinese toilet". Causing a man to live, eat and perhaps sleep in close confines with his own human waste is too debasing and degrading to be permitted. The indecent conditions that existed in this Somers prison strip cell seriously threatened the ...

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