Appeals Court: Detainees Can Sue Over Jail’s Laundry Policy

A federal appeals court is allowing former prisoners to proceed with a lawsuit over a policy that forced them to remain unclothed for hours each week.

A federal appeals court is allowing former prisoners to proceed with a lawsuit over a policy that forced them to remain unclothed for hours each week.

By Christopher Zoukis

A federal appeals court has overruled a lower court decision that rejected a lawsuit filed by detainees in a Missouri county jail attacking a policy as unconstitutional. The policy forced them to remain naked for about seven hours at least one or two times a week while their only clothing was being laundered.

In July 2015, groups of current and former prisoners held at the Cole County jail in Jefferson City sued the county and the jail warden and deputy, claiming the jail’s laundry and related policies combined to deprive them of constitutional rights.

The trial record established jail rules required male prisoners’ clothing to be laundered every two or three days, and female prisoners’ clothing after four days’ use. Jail residents were given only a single set of clothes and not permitted to clean their own clothing or to wear other clothes of their own while their jail-issued clothing was being washed overnight.

As a result, while deprived of their clothing, they could cover themselves with bedsheets or blankets, but might otherwise be visible to other prisoners or guards who delivered washed clothing to cells. The record also noted opposite-sex guards sometimes deliver the clothing, and another prison rule forbade covering or blocking cell windows allowing occupants to be viewed.

Two months after the lawsuit was filed, the trial court dismissed the case, accepting the county’s arguments the prisoners had not made out a constitutional claim. In throwing out the case, the trial court noted that for most of the time the prisoners would be naked, they would be in bed in their cells.

Echoing county arguments that the laundry rules served hygienic and cleanliness purposes, the trial court found the jail rules being attacked amounted to no more than “minimal deprivations,” well short of violating constitutional rights. It further held, since no constitutional rights had been denied, jail officials had limited immunity to being sued.

But on Jan. 17, a three-judge panel of the St. Louis-based 8th Circuit unanimously decided, in Ingram et al v. Cole County et al, that the trial court had erred. Because the prisoners bringing suit were pretrial detainees rather than convicted inmates, both courts analyzed the constitutionality of jail practices under the 14th Amendment’s requirement of due process, rather than under the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

For the appeals court, this distinction was significant, because the 14th Amendment forbids punishment of pretrial detainees, since they have not yet been convicted. So the key test, the appeals court said, was whether policies attacked in the lawsuit were so arbitrary or purposeless as to constitute punishment without a valid correction purpose.

The appeals court stopped short of deciding that question, but did rule there was enough evidence in the record to form the basis of a claim on which the detainees should be heard. One appellate judge, for example, noted the absence of any official explanation of why the jail couldn’t stock or wash enough clothes to prevent frequent, recurring periods that detainees would be left without clothing. The case is now scheduled to return to the lower court to examine the purposes and justification for the jail’s practices.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.