Libby v. Commissioner of Correction

Decision Date02 March 1982
Citation432 N.E.2d 486,385 Mass. 421
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Ann Lambert Greenblatt, Boston (Judith A. Stalus, Boston, with her), for plaintiffs.

John W. Bishop, Jr., Sp. Asst. Atty. Gen., for defendant.


LYNCH, Justice.

This case involves a challenge to the conditions under which prisoners serve isolation time in the departmental segregation unit in Block 10 of the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Walpole (Walpole). The plaintiffs, inmates of Block 10, allege that those conditions constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution 2 and art. 26 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. 3 Specifically, the plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief from the practice, authorized by the defendant, of confining inmates serving isolation time in Block 10 behind solid steel doors.

This action was originally filed in the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County. A single justice denied the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction and ordered the action transferred to the Superior Court for trial. The case was tried to a judge of the Superior Court who certified it as a class action on behalf of all persons who are or will be future inmates of Block 10 at Walpole. See Mass.R.Civ.P. 23, 365 Mass. 767 (1974). On February 8, 1980, the judge entered "Findings, Rulings and Judgment" denying all of the plaintiffs' requests for relief. The plaintiffs appealed and we granted their request for direct appellate review. The plaintiffs urge us to find that the judge erred by failing to find that the challenged conditions amount to cruel and unusual punishment, by excluding certain evidence sought to be introduced by the plaintiffs, and by making a "clearly erroneous" finding of fact with respect to the adequacy of ventilation. We find no error.

The judge made extensive findings of fact on the basis of evidence presented during the five-day trial. These findings are, of course, binding on this court unless shown to be clearly erroneous. Mass.R.Civ.P. 52(a), 365 Mass. 816 (1974). See also New England Canteen Service, Inc. v. Ashley, 372 Mass. 671, 675, 363 N.E.2d 526 (1977). We summarize the judge's findings with respect to the conditions in Block 10.

1. Factual Background.

a. Physical conditions. Walpole is the State's only maximum security prison and Block 10 is the departmental segregation unit at Walpole. Prisoners are transferred to Block 10 because of misconduct in the general prison population. G.L. c. 127, § 39. There are two upper and two lower tiers of cells in Block 10. The thirty cells on the lower tiers are used for isolated confinement. The cells are separated from the outside wall by a five foot wide corridor. There is a row of windows at the top of the outside wall which are often open during daylight hours and through which prisoners can see natural light. Each isolation cell measures six feet by nine feet and has three solid walls and a double door for the fourth wall. Both doors are opened manually with keys. The inside door is barred. The immediately adjacent outside door is solid steel. The outer door has a six inch square window at eye level and a voice box below the window. Some of the windows are open; others are covered by clear Plexiglas. When the solid door is closed, an inmate serving isolation time may speak through the voice box or through the window, if it is an uncovered one.

The cells contain a raised bed with mattress, a sink, a flush toilet, a built-in stool and table, and a hanging sixty-watt light bulb. The light is controlled by a master switch outside the cells, although inmates may turn the light off from inside by unscrewing the bulb. Soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and toilet paper are the only personal possessions allowed. 4 Inmates serving isolation time receive three meals a day. 5 They are allowed to shower and shave twice a week and, obviously they leave their cells for this purpose. While in isolation inmates may have a Bible and personal legal papers but no other reading material. There is no opportunity for outdoor exercise.

The judge found that the ventilation system for the isolation cells was adequate when not interfered with by inmates. This finding is discussed further below in connection with the claim that it is "clearly erroneous."

Inmates in isolation have limited contact with the prison world beyond the solid door. Six times a day the solid door is opened so that food trays may be passed in or taken out. The solid door is also opened when mail and medicine are delivered. Prisoners may receive visits from attorneys and chaplains. The judge also found that inmates in adjacent cells are able to communicate with each other by speaking, in a normal voice, through the window of the steel door (where it is an open one) or through the voice box.

b. Isolation time policies. Isolation time may be imposed on inmates who commit disciplinary infractions while in Block 10. This sanction may only be imposed after a three-member disciplinary board has found a prisoner guilty of a major infraction of the prison rules or serious misconduct in the general prison population. The prisoner may appeal the finding of guilty or the sanction of confinement in isolation. The plaintiffs do not challenge the fairness of these procedures.

By statute, confinement in an isolation cell may not exceed fifteen days for any one offense. G.L. c. 127, § 40. By order of the defendant Commissioner, no more than thirty days of isolation may be imposed as a result of a single incident regardless of how many separate offenses were involved. Also by order of the Commissioner, at no time shall any inmate be facing accumulated isolation sanctions of more than thirty days even when numerous infractions have been committed. If two fifteen-day isolation sanctions are to be served, the inmate is removed from isolation for twenty-four hours between the two periods. During this twenty-four-hour break the solid door is left open and the inmate is accorded the privileges enjoyed by inmates not serving isolation time, including visits and exercise.

Currently, isolation time for inmates of Block 10 is served with the solid door closed. The solid doors had also been used in the past but their use was discontinued several years ago. During the period when the doors were not closed, inmates threw significant amounts of debris into the corridor outside the cells in Block 10 and then interfered with the attempts of correctional personnel to clean the corridor. As a result, the solid door policy was reinstituted in August, 1979. The supervisor of Block 10 testified that there has been a significant decline in the number of assaults on staff and other inmates as well as a decline in disciplinary infractions in general since the solid doors have been used. He described Block 10 as "much cleaner" and "more orderly" and said that, as a result, the morale of correctional officers assigned to Block 10 has greatly improved.

One of the experts called by the plaintiffs testified on cross-examination that some inmates of Block 10 who were not serving isolation time had voluntarily closed the solid doors of their cells, leaving them, in some cases, ajar only "(a)n inch or two."

c. Impact of solid doors on physical and mental health of inmates. Inmates serving isolation time have access to a wide variety of health facilities. Medics visit the tiers of isolation cells four times daily on an established schedule and their presence is made known to the inmates. Psychiatric counseling is available on a regular schedule each weekday. A diversified group of medical personnel is available for treatment and consultation. The judge found that there had been no increase in medical problems or suicide attempts in Block 10 since the use of the solid doors was resumed in August, 1979. He reviewed the medical records of prisoners who had served solid-door isolation time and found that no physical illness had resulted from their confinement. Furthermore, the judge found that closing the solid doors did not increase the time that would be required to reach a distressed inmate.

Much of the testimony at trial related to the plaintiffs' allegation that confinement in closed-door isolation cells is damaging to the mental health of inmates. The judge concluded that there was no persuasive evidence that the use of the solid door causes any mental or emotional deterioration of a serious nature. The plaintiffs do not challenge the judge's findings on the psychological effects of closed-door confinement as clearly erroneous.

2. Discussion.

a. Findings with respect to ventilation. 6 The judge found that the ventilation system in Block 10 was "adequate when it is not interfered with by the inmates," (2) that the temperature readings taken in eight isolation cells by the plaintiffs' expert were inconclusive, and (3) that the temperature in the cells was "hotter than necessary for comfort" but that certain actions of the inmates had contributed to this problem. The plaintiffs ask us to reject these findings as clearly erroneous. We have reviewed the relevant portions of the trial transcript and find no error. We summarize the evidence which was presented to the judge.

Each closed-door cell in Block 10 has two air vents, one at the top of the rear wall through which air is supplied to the cell and one at the base of the rear wall through which air is exhausted. The air supply system draws some air from outside the building and some from basement areas. Some of the air supplied to the cells is heated first and is thus quite warm when it enters the cells. In an attempt to limit the amount of warm air which enters their cells when the solid door is closed, inmates...

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