Inmates of Suffolk County Jail v. Rouse

Decision Date10 September 1997
Docket Number97-1262,97-1263 and 97-1334,Nos. 97-1261,s. 97-1261
Citation129 F.3d 649
PartiesINMATES OF SUFFOLK COUNTY JAIL, etc., et al., Plaintiffs, Appellees, v. Richard J. ROUSE, etc., et al., Defendants, Appellants. INMATES OF SUFFOLK COUNTY JAIL, etc., et al., Plaintiffs, Appellants, v. Richard J. ROUSE, etc., et al., Defendants, Appellees. INMATES OF SUFFOLK COUNTY JAIL, etc., et al., Plaintiffs, Appellees, v. Richard J. ROUSE, etc., et al., Defendants, Appellees, United States of America, Intervenor, Appellant. . Heard
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit

Max D. Stern, Boston, MA, with whom Lynn Weissberg and Stern, Shapiro, Weissberg & Garin were on brief, for plaintiffs.

John D. Hanify, Boston, MA, with whom Robyn J. Bartlett, Owen P. Kane and Hanify & King were on brief, for defendant Richard J. Rouse, Sheriff of Suffolk County.

Douglas H. Wilkins, Assistant Attorney General, Boston, MA, with whom Scott Harshbarger, Attorney General, and Thomas O. Bean, Assistant Attorneys General, were on brief, for defendants Commonwealth of Massachusetts and Commissioner of Correction.

Robert M. Loeb, Washington, DC, with whom Frank W. Hunger, Assistant Attorney General, Donald K. Stern, United States Attorney, and Barbara L. Herwig and John C. Hoyle, Attorneys, Civil Division, Department of Justice, were on brief, for the intervenor.

Before SELYA, Circuit Judge, ALDRICH and COFFIN, Senior Circuit Judges.

SELYA, Circuit Judge.

The passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 18 U.S.C.A. § 3626 (Supp.1997) (the PLRA or the Act), brought cheers to the lips of many prison administrators. In its wake, the Sheriff of Suffolk County and the Massachusetts Commissioner of Correction (collectively, the defendants) cast their gaze toward a consent decree that has governed important aspects of the county's handling of pretrial detainees since 1979. Spying an opportunity to sever the shackles of judicial oversight, the defendants invoked the new law and asked the supervising tribunal, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, to vacate the decree or, in the alternative, to terminate all prospective relief under it. The plaintiffs questioned the Act's constitutionality and raised a host of other objections to the defendants' motions. The district court repulsed the constitutional attack but construed the PLRA to require only the termination of prospective relief, not the vacatur of the consent decree itself. See Inmates of Suffolk County Jail v. Sheriff of Suffolk County, 952 F.Supp. 869 (D.Mass.1997) (D.Ct.Op.).

After careful consideration of the meaning of the PLRA, we vouchsafe the Act's constitutionality against the challenges asserted here and construe it to entitle correctional officials to the termination of existing consent decrees in civil actions involving prison conditions (except in the presence of statutorily prescribed conditions that forestall such termination).


This litigation deals almost exclusively with the effect of the PLRA on an extant consent decree. Thus, the history of the conflict is of minimal import, and we merely sketch it. The shelves of any reasonably well-stocked law library afford readers who hunger for more exegetic detail ample opportunity to dine elsewhere. See, e.g., Inmates of Suffolk County Jail v. Eisenstadt, 360 F.Supp. 676, 679-84 (D.Mass.1973), aff'd, 494 F.2d 1196 (1st Cir.1974); Inmates of Suffolk County Jail v. Kearney, 734 F.Supp. 561, 562-63 (D.Mass.), aff'd, 915 F.2d 1557 (1st Cir.1990) (table), vacated, 502 U.S. 367, 112 S.Ct. 748, 116 L.Ed.2d 867 (1992); Inmates of Suffolk County Jail v. Kearney, 928 F.2d 33, 34 (1st Cir.1991); D. Ct. Op., 952 F.Supp. at 871-73.

In 1971 the plaintiff class, which consists of present and future pretrial detainees held or to be held in the Suffolk County jail (collectively, the plaintiffs), brought a civil action alleging that the conditions of their confinement--particularly double bunking--violated the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. After extensive skirmishing, not relevant here, the parties reached a rapprochement, subsequently approved by the district court and embodied in the 1979 consent decree, in which they ratified an architectural plan for a new facility featuring single-occupancy cells. The agreement contemplated the phasing-out of the existing Charles Street jail once the new structure was in place.

As the Scottish poet warned, "the best laid schemes o' mice and men gang aft a-gley," Robert Burns, To a Mouse (1785), and in this case time proved a formidable opponent. Growth in prison population and delays in construction both exceeded expectations. The new facility (the Nashua Street jail) was not completed until mid-1990 and was hard-pressed from the start to cope with the Sheriff's escalating needs. In response to these volatile conditions, the consent decree was modified by court order in 1985, 1990, and 1994. The last of these changes permitted limited double bunking at the Nashua Street facility (the Sheriff having closed the Charles Street facility prior thereto). 1

In July 1996 the Sheriff initiated the current engagement. He grasped the weapon that Congress had forged and moved to terminate all prospective relief pursuant to the PLRA. Not to be outdone, the Commissioner moved to vacate the consent decree outright, thus formalizing a suggestion that the Sheriff had omitted from his motion but had included in the memorandum supporting the motion. When the plaintiffs indicated that they would challenge the Act's constitutionality as part of their opposition, the federal government intervened. After sorting out the components of the parties' extensive asseverational array, Judge Keeton gave the pertinent provisions of the PLRA a narrowing construction and on that basis upheld their constitutionality. He thereupon granted the Sheriff's motion to the extent that the consent decree would "no longer be enforced by an order of specific performance," but declined either to vacate the decree or to "terminate the obligations stated [therein]" because those obligations represented "consensual undertakings of the defendants with court approval." Id. at 883. All parties appealed.

In an effort to cut a passable swath through this legal thicket, we start by construing the termination provision of the PLRA. We then test its constitutionality and, finding no merit in the plaintiffs' constitutional challenges, apply the Act and evaluate the extent of the remediation to which the defendants are entitled.


In parsing the PLRA, we afford de novo review. See United States v. Gifford, 17 F.3d 462, 471-72 (1st Cir.1994). Such an exercise in statutory interpretation always begins with the language of the statute itself. See Stowell v. Ives, 976 F.2d 65, 69 (1st Cir.1992). At this stage, an inquisitive court should assume that the words of the statute, if not specially defined, comport with their ordinary meaning, and that the words, so read, accurately express the legislature's intent. See FMC Corp. v. Holliday, 498 U.S. 52, 57, 111 S.Ct. 403, 407, 112 L.Ed.2d 356 (1990). In keeping with this principle, the court should "resort to legislative history and other aids of statutory construction only when the literal words of the statute create ambiguity or lead to an unreasonable result." United States v. Charles George Trucking Co., 823 F.2d 685, 688 (1st Cir.1987) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

The PLRA is not a paragon of clarity. In regard to existing federal court orders, it declares that "in any civil action with respect to prison conditions, a defendant or intervenor shall be entitled to the immediate termination of any prospective relief if the relief was approved or granted in the absence of a finding by the court that the relief is narrowly drawn, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right, and is the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right." 18 U.S.C.A. § 3626(b)(2). Such prospective relief shall not terminate, however, "if the court makes written findings based on the record that prospective relief remains necessary to correct a current or ongoing violation of the Federal right, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right, and that the prospective relief is narrowly drawn and the least intrusive means to correct the violation." Id. § 3626(b)(3). With regard to relief not yet obtained, the Act contains similar proscriptions. It forbids courts from granting or approving prospective relief "unless the court finds that such relief is narrowly drawn, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right, and is the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right." Id. § 3626(a)(1)(A).

These iterations are clear enough, but uncertainty arises when we examine the Act's definitional instructions. One such passage defines "prospective relief" to include "all relief other than compensatory monetary damages," and then defines "relief" to "mean[ ] all relief in any form that may be granted or approved by the court ... includ[ing] consent decrees." Id. § 3626(g)(7), (9). "Consent decree," in turn, means "any relief entered by the court that is based in whole or in part upon the consent or acquiescence of the parties but does not include private settlements." Id. § 3626(b)(1). In a vacuum, the interaction of the Act's mechanics and these definitions is manageable: terminating "prospective relief" as prescribed by section 3626(b)(2) would terminate "all relief," see section 3626(g)(7), which under section 3626(g)(9) "includes consent decrees." Read literally, therefore, once defendants or intervenors show their entitlement to terminate prospective relief, the Act seemingly requires termination of the consent decree itself.

As the district court astutely...

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