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Benjamin v. Horn

May 18, 2006

JAMES BENJAMIN, ET AL. PLAINTIFFS,
v.
MARTIN F. HORN, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Harold Baer, Jr., District Judge

OPINION

Defendants, the City of New York and the Department of Corrections, et al. (collectively the "Department" or "DOC"), move, pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), to terminate the December 22, 2004 Amended Heat Order on extreme temperature conditions in correctional facilities operated by the Defendants. Plaintiffs, pre-trial detainees, object to the termination of the Order, and instead, ask this Court to extend the Order at least until the end of this year. For the reasons discussed below, I agree with the Plaintiffs and decline to terminate the Amended Order at this time.

I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Pre-trial detainees in various New York City jails brought seven related class action lawsuits against the City of New York ("City"), particularly the DOC, which alleged the conditions of their confinement violated their constitutional rights. Plaintiffs and the City entered into several consent decrees in 1978-79. The consent decrees were consolidated for enforcement before Judge Morris E. Lasker. Both parties agreed to the creation of an independent monitoring agency, the Office of Compliance Consultants ("OCC"), which occurred pursuant to Judge Lasker's Order in 1982. Since then, OCC has monitored compliance with the consent decrees.

Following a May 2000 hearing, this Court issued the April 26, 2001 Order where some of the Defendants' practices concerning environmental health in various correctional facilities were held unconstitutional, among them the extreme temperature conditions encountered in some facilities from time to time. In July 2003, Dr. Susi Vassallo was retained to provide expertise on issues associated with heat-related illness. As a result of her report and other information supplied by the parties and OCC, this Court, on July 26, 2004, entered an Order that addressed the potential risk to inmates from extreme temperature conditions and obliged the DOC to take certain precautions, triggered by the outside temperature having reached 85§F (sometimes "high heat days").

The July 26, 2004 "Heat Order" provided for automatic termination on October 15, 2005 if "OCC does not find any evidence of current and ongoing constitutional violations of plaintiffs' federal rights." At the Department's behest, this Order was subsequently amended in a December 22, 2004 Order ("Amended Heat Order"). The automatic termination provision did not change.

Due to DOC's failure to provide contemporaneous records during the summer of 2005, the automatic termination provision was extended, by Order of October 14, 2005 to December 1, 2005, further extended by Order of November 29, 2005 to December 31, 2005, and finally, by Order of December 22, 2005 "until the date of the Court's decision." Defendants have now moved this Court to terminate the Amended Heat Order.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA") provides that prospective relief with respect to prison conditions shall be terminated, upon motion of any party, inter alia, two years after the date the court granted or approved the prospective relief. 18 U.S.C. § 3626(b)(1)(i). Any party is permitted to seek termination of a consent decree in advance of the timeframe provided in the PLRA. 18 U.S.C. § 3626(b)(4). But a Court shall not terminate a consent decree if it finds that "prospective relief remains necessary to correct a current and ongoing violation of the Federal right, and that the prospective relief is narrowly drawn and the least intrusive means to correct the violation." 18 U.S.C. § 3626(b)(3).

III. DISCUSSION

Defendants submit that they are in substantial compliance with the requirements of the Amended Heat Order and thus, this Court should terminate the consent decree as it relates to extreme temperature conditions in the following facilities: Adolescent Reception & Detention Center ("ARDC"), Bernard B. Kerik Center ("BBKC"), George Motchan Detention Center ("GMDC"), George R. Vierno Center ("GRVC"), Anna M. Kross Center ("AMKC"), and Rose M. Singer Center ("RMSC"). OCC and plaintiffs object to the termination of my Order, and instead, recommend that I extend it. After a review of the evidence, I find that there is sufficient evidence of noncompliance to warrant an extension of the Heat Order.

A. Extension of Heat Order

OCC has provided this Court with documentation that demonstrates that the DOC has failed the substantial compliance test in connection with several of the provisions in the Amended Heat Order. Specifically, OCC found that, to a greater or lesser extent, that the DOC:

1) failed to house heat-sensitive inmates appropriately, 2) did not have functional air-conditioning in housing units designated heat-sensitive, 3) failed to provide this Court with a ventilation plan for the punitive segregation areas, and 4) has not confirmed that cool showers are available in all of the housing units as required by the Heat Order. Each of these violations will be addressed below.

1. Housing Heat-Sensitive Inmates

OCC selected, at random, a sample of 271 inmates from a list of over 1,000 heat-sensitive inmates and monitored the DOC's compliance. If the DOC failed to house any heat-sensitive inmate in heat-sensitive housing units*fn1 (sometimes "air-conditioned housing units") for even one day when the temperature was higher than 85§F, that was considered a violation of the Heat Order. OCC's analysis of the 271 heat-sensitive inmates revealed that the Department failed to house 98 heat-sensitive inmates in heat-sensitive housing as required by the Amended Heat Order, a non-compliance rate of 36%. OCC REPORTat 1-2 (Mar. 21, 2006). I find that this percentage fails to meet the substantial compliance test under the PLRA.

The 98 inmates the DOC failed to house in heat-sensitive housing units breakdown as follows. In 11 instances, DOC either admitted or provided no explanation for their failure to house heat-sensitive inmates pursuant to the Order, in one instance, DOC could not locate records associated with the inmate, and in another instance, the DOC was still, at the time of OCC's last report, investigating their failure to transfer one heat-sensitive inmate to a heat-sensitive unit. OCC REPORTat 1 (Mar. 21, 2006). Further violations of the Amended Heat Order included: 1) 9 instances where DOC gave no reason for the failure, 2) 26 instances where DOC refused to place heat-sensitive inmates in designated heat-sensitive housing units because a DOC-created exception to the Order prevented such placement, 3) 37 instances where a heat-sensitive inmate refused transfer to a heat-sensitive housing unit, and 4) 13 instances ...


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