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Wolfish v. Levi

January 24, 1978


Appeal from two judgments of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Frankel, J., declaring certain practices and conditions at the Metropolitan Correctional Center unconstitutional and arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act.

Kaufman, Chief Judge, Timbers and Meskill, Circuit Judges.

Author: Kaufman

KAUFMAN, Chief Judge

When the history of our criminal justice system is chronicled, no doubt one of its most sobering pages will describe the sad state of this nation's prisons and jails. Whether it be in filthy, narrow cells of an Alabama penitentiary or in overcrowded dormitories in a Bronx house of detention, we have quartered individuals, both convicted or merely accused of crimes, major and minor, under conditions that shock the conscience of civilized men. To redress these glaring deficiencies, courts have often been summoned to insure that, at the least, minimum standards of human decency are met. And, when inhuman or barbaric conditions, or in the case of pretrial detainees, substantial deprivations not compelled by administrative necessity, are discovered, judges should not hesitate to enter the breach.

But, courts are singularly ill-suited to administer the minutiae of the daily affairs of prisons. Accordingly, although district courts are empowered with broad discretion to frame equitable remedies so long as the relief granted is commensurate with the scope of the constitutional infraction, a trial judge must tread carefully in less substantial matters best left to the expertise of prison officials.

This sprawling appeal, raising a score of issues concerning conditions and practices at New York's Metropolitan Correctional Center ("MCC"), presents this dilemma in sharp relief. In his decree, Judge Frankel intervened broadly into almost every facet of the institution. In most instances, the able district court judge's incursion on administrative authority was well-founded, and cured serious constitutional deficiencies in the operation of the MCC. But in other cases we believe a balance more restrained should have been struck between the court's power to redress inmate grievances and deference to prison administrators. Many of the cited deficiencies, if indeed they existed, were not of a kind to require a chancellor's decree to bring about compliance.

Of course, the problems presented by such an overexpansive decree does not fall on the trial judge's shoulders alone. In too many cases, the parties' impulse is to run to the courts as a first resort, no matter how minor or trivial the problem. The fault in this respect lies too often with unresponsive or uncooperative government officials. And as then Chief Judge Friendly aptly stated in Negron v. Wallace,*fn1 "there is... a responsibility, resting upon all counsel but especially upon those for civil rights organizations, not to swell the tidal wave of actions under the civil rights statute by bringing suits for... relief when no need for this exists."*fn2 After wading through the many aspects of this decree, we can only implore the litigants in this case to avoid this increasingly acute problem of "litigation neurosis"*fn3 in future disputes by resolving petty problems in the administrative arena, without burdening our courts.


In August 1975, when the Metropolitan Correctional Center replaced the converted waterfront garage on West Street that had served as New York City's federal jail for over 45 years, it represented the architectural embodiment of the best and most progressive penological planning. Abjuring the cage motif of traditional cellblock jail construction, the architects of the MCC, the New York firm of Gruzen and Partners, well-known for its innovative work in correctional design, created a series of self-contained "modular units". Each unit consisted of approximately 24 private rooms, or six dormitory rooms, adjacent to a multipurpose room, a balcony education area and a recreation room to which inmates were to, and in fact do, have access for 16 to 19 hours a day.

In the view of Paul Silver, Gruzen's principal architect on the MCC project, as well as the numerous other correctional experts who assisted in the jail's development,*fn4 the modular unit concept was a sensible alternative to the "illusory freedom" of the standard jail. By substantially eliminating the need for inmate movement to major facilities within the institution, the corresponding necessity of locking inmates in their cells while the staff directed traffic was reduced and face-to-face contact between inmates and their keepers increased. The modular unit, in short, was expected to humanize staff-inmate relations and provide a more "homelike" atmosphere, affording inmates greater privacy and freedom than jails of earlier construction.

The modular unit concept was fully implemented in the design of MCC. Each of the ten residential units if furnished with recreational and exercise equipment, telephones, color televisions, books, food preparation and dining facilities, and a visiting room. The residential atmosphere is enhanced by carpeting and the exterior walls are studded with clear plastic windows. There are no central dining, recreational, religious, assembly or work facilities with the exception of an outdoor recreation area on the roof.

When this action was commenced, the law library, general library and commissary were all essentially storerooms from which books and other items could be ordered. In fact, most inmates, except a selected cadre of sentenced inmates, may leave their unit only for one hour of daily recreation on the roof, if the weather permits, and for sick calls and court appearances.

But, Samuel Johnson's comment, "Hell is paved with good intentions,"*fn5 is particularly appropriate here. While the MCC in operation can by no means be characterized as an earthly Hades, it nevertheless has fallen far short of its planners' expectations. Their major miscalculation has proven to be a failure to foresee the influx of more inmates than contemplated. Although originally designed to accommodate a population 50 percent larger than the 300 inmate capacity of the West Street jail, an unprecedented rise in pretrial and sentenced commitments commencing in 1975 quickly forced the MCC to house numbers significantly in excess of its rated capacity. To satisfy these demands, the MCC's administrators have pressed into service every square foot of space which conceivably could be used as sleeping space. The deleterious effects of this overcrowding will be described in greater detail. Suffice it to say that overcrowding has destroyed any modicum of privacy for many pretrial detainees. They find themselves double-bunked in rooms designed for and, according to Silver, capable of holding only one. We find even more disturbing however, the fact that when no rooms are available, as is customarily the case, new arrivals are forced to sleep on sofas or cots in the common areas under the glare of constantly burning lights. And sentenced inmates have been crammed 20 at a time into dormitories intended to house only ten. Moreover, the stresses of serious excess population have burdened beyond capacity equipment and other facilities designed for far fewer people.


The consequences of this excessive crowding, strained by frustrations over the physical curbs resulting from modular confinement and the restrictions and degradation that are common generally to prisoners, led to the institution of this suit. Indeed, this lawsuit mirrors the difficulties present at the MCC almost from its inception, for it was commenced barely four months after the institution opened. On November 28, 1975, inmate Louis Wolfish, proceeding pro se, sought a writ of habeas corpus because of allegedly unconstitutional conditions at the facility. A week later, on December 2, 1975, the action was declared a class action on behalf of all persons confined at the facility, including pretrial detainees and sentenced prisoners,*fn6 and the Legal Aid Society was assigned as counsel. On January 11, 1976, the Society filed an amended petition, charging that inmates had been deprived of their constitutional and statutory rights because of, inter alia, overcrowded conditions, lengthy confinements, unnecessary restrictions on movement, inadequate visiting hours, and lack of sufficient employment, recreational and educational opportunities. This litany of woes touched on almost all aspects of the institution's conditions and practices.*fn7

In the year following the filing of the amended petition, Judge Frankel intervened twice to correct alleged maladministration of the facility. On January 28, 1976, after notices at the MCC heralded a severe curtailment of visiting hours, he issued a preliminary injunction to maintain the status quo pending the outcome of the litigation. And on October 1, 1976, after the New York Telephone Company threatened to remove the MCC's telephones because of a multitude of fraudulently placed calls, a second preliminary injunction was issued ordering the facility to maintain and improve its system of local and long distance telephone services.


Upon appellees' motion, and appellants' cross-motion, for partial summary judgment, a variety of other issues were decided on January 5, 1977. Relying on affidavits "recounting undisputed facts" and upon his own observations in touring the facility, Judge Frankel enjoined the use of single occupancy rooms for two inmates ("double-celling"), confiscation of property without supplying receipts, reading of outgoing mail, and enforcement of a "publisher only" rule that limits inmates to the receipt of reading materials directly from a publisher or book club. On the other hand, Judge Frankel upheld the appellants' practice of opening legal mail in the presence of the recipient for the exclusive purpose of discovering contraband. Rulings on other complaints, including a severe limitation on the receipt of packages, were deferred. See United States ex rel. Wolfish v. Levi, 428 F. Supp. 333 (S.D.N.Y. 1977). Appellants filed a notice of appeal from this order on March 18, 1977.


Finally, trial of the many remaining issues began on February 28, 1977 and continued until the end of the following month. At trial, appellees called 21 witnesses, relying primarily on the testimony of MCC inmates and four correctional experts; appellants, in turn, summoned 23 witnesses to the stand, including MCC personnel and a battery of seven correctional experts.*fn8 In addition to hearing this testimony and receiving numerous exhibits into evidence, Judge Frankel in his customary conscientious manner, twice toured the MCC during trial.

On September 15, 1977, the judge decided all the remaining issues except those related to the adequacy of medical care.*fn9 He granted relief on the issues concerned with classification and movement between modules, overcrowding, law library facilities, the commissary, receipt of packages, use of personal typewriters, social and attorney visitation, telephone service, inmate presence during room searches, "strip" searches, uniforms, the availability of exercise for those inmates held in administrative detention, special diets for Muslim inmates, inspection of "incoming mail", and women's "lock-in". Other claims, touching on food, staff, and transfers, were dismissed. See United States ex rel. Wolfish v. Levi, 439 F. Supp. 114 (S.D.N.Y. 1977). On October 21, 1977, appellants filed a notice of appeal from this judgment.*fn10


Constitutional Standards

1. Pretrial Detainees

Fundamental to the Anglo-American jurisprudence of criminal law is the premise that an individual is to be treated as innocent until proven guilty by a jury of his or her peers. We have demonstrated our belief in this basic principle by according to pretrial detainees the rights afforded unincarcerated individuals, including, inter alia, rights to free speech, Wilkinson v. Skinner, 462 F.2d 670 (2d Cir. 1972), and freedom of religion, Kahane v. Carlson, 527 F.2d 492 (2d Cir. 1975). Accordingly, it is not enough that the conditions of incarceration for individuals awaiting trial merely comport with contemporary standards of decency prescribed by the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the eighth amendment. Time and again, we have stated without equivocation the indisputable rudiments of due process: pretrial detainees may be subjected to only those "restrictions and privations" which "inhere in their confinement itself or which are justified by compelling necessities of jail administration." Rhem v. Malcolm, 507 F.2d 333, 336 (2d Cir. 1974) ("Rhem I") ; Detainees of the Brooklyn House of Detention for Men v. Malcolm, 520 F.2d 392 (2d Cir. 1975) ("Detainees"). This standard of compelling necessity is neither rhetoric nor dicta. And we have made it clear that deprivation of the rights of detainees cannot be justified by the cries of fiscal necessity, Todaro v. Ward, 565 F.2d 48, 54 n.8 (2d Cir. 1977), administrative convenience, Estelle v. Williams, 425 U.S. 501, 505, 48 L. Ed. 2d 126, 96 S. Ct. 1691 (1976), or by the cold comfort that conditions in other jails are worse, Rhem I, 507 F.2d at 338. See generally Note, Constitutional Limitations on the Conditions of Pretrial Detention, 79 Yale L.J. 941 (1970).

But, we cannot ignore the Supreme Court's admonition in Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396, at 405, 40 L. Ed. 2d 224, 94 S. Ct. 1800 (1974):

.... courts are ill-equipped to deal with the increasingly urgent problems of prison administration and reform. Judicial recognition of that fact reflects ...

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