Wetzel v. Edwards, 79-6801

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
Citation635 F.2d 283
Docket NumberNo. 79-6801,79-6801
PartiesFrank E. WETZEL, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Ralph EDWARDS, etc. et al., Defendants-Appellants.
Decision Date27 October 1980

Rufus L. Edmisten, Atty. Gen. of North Carolina and James Peeler Smith, Asst. Atty. Gen., Raleigh, N. C., for defendants-appellants.

Donna H. LeFebvre and Hanan M. Isaacs, North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, Inc., Durham, N. C., for plaintiff-appellee.

Before BRYAN and PHILLIPS, Circuit Judges, and WALTER E. HOFFMAN, Senior United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Virginia, sitting by designation.

WALTER E. HOFFMAN, Senior District Judge:

Appellee, Frank Wetzel, a state court prisoner brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging violation of his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Specifically, appellee contends that the named defendants have violated his due process and equal protection rights by failing to transfer him to a facility commensurate with his medium custody classification. Additionally, he argued that appellants' conduct constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Appellee sought actual and punitive damages, declaratory relief, and preliminary and permanent injunctions requiring the defendants to transfer him to a medium custody unit.

Appellants moved under Rule 12(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to dismiss the action for failure to allege grounds which would entitle Wetzel to the relief sought. In addition, appellants filed a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. These motions were accompanied by memoranda of law and supporting affidavits.

The district court issued an order on January 25, 1979 requiring appellants to respond to specific inquiries concerning the housing and treatment of appellee and similarly situated inmates. The parties responded with voluminous affidavits.

The district court found that appellants' conduct may have contravened Wetzel's Fourteenth Amendment due process rights by effectively precluding him from meaningful parole consideration. Wetzel's Eighth Amendment claims were dismissed, the court noting that the appellants' conduct does not shock the conscience of society under any standard derived from the Eighth Amendment. Instead, the court recognized that the appellants have real questions concerning the manner in which Wetzel should be treated.

The lower court judge issued an opinion and order on July 26, 1979, denying appellants' motions to dismiss and for summary judgment. The court granted Wetzel's motion for a preliminary injunction ordering that he be transferred to a medium custody facility where he should be permitted to participate in such rehabilitative programs as might be available at such facility.

Appellants moved for reconsideration under Rule 60, F.R.Civ.P., and for a stay of execution pending action on such motion. Affidavits and briefs were submitted by both sides to this controversy. Eventually, the district court judge held a conference in chambers to discuss the matter. Thereupon, the court denied the appellants' motion to reconsider, however, the court acknowledged the closeness of the issues and indicated that it would consider a motion for a stay pending appeal. Thereafter, appellants sought and were granted, a stay of execution pending appeal to this court. The appellants appeal the order of the district court granting the preliminary injunction.

In 1951, Wetzel, at that time 36 years of age, escaped from a mental institution in New York where he was being held for observation pending trial. He stole an automobile and firearm and was destined for Mississippi to see his brother who was awaiting execution. Enroute Wetzel murdered two North Carolina Highway Patrolmen in separate incidents in two counties on the same night.

Wetzel fled to California where he was later apprehended and returned to North Carolina. Thereupon, he was convicted of first degree murder in separate trials and sentenced to consecutive terms of life imprisonment. Wetzel was housed at Central Prison, the only maximum security facility in North Carolina. Two years after he entered the prison system, he was implicated in an escape plot and his fingerprints were found on a pistol retrieved from the confines of Central Prison. Wetzel was transferred briefly to another prison, where apparently he was involved in another unsuccessful escape plot. Soon thereafter, he was returned to Central Prison.

Wetzel's record has been exemplary for at least the past ten years. North Carolina prison officials uniformly assert that during recent years Wetzel has been a model prisoner. He has participated in all educational and rehabilitative programs at Central Prison. Additionally, he is active in church affairs, Alcoholics Anonymous and the Jaycees.

The North Carolina Department of Corrections has separated the prison units and prisoners into four security grades: (1) minimum custody, or honor grade; (2) medium custody; (3) close grade; and (4) maximum custody. There are 48 units classified as minimum custody, 26 units classified as medium custody, 2 units classified as close custody, and only 1 unit, Central Prison, is classified as maximum custody.

The custody classification of the unit is determinative of the available programs, rehabilitative opportunities, degree of personal freedom accorded inmates, as well as the nature and degree of security precautions taken by penal administrators. In general, it has been the practice of the Department of Corrections to assign prisoners to prison units commensurate with the custody status assigned to individual inmates.

The Central Classification Board (hereinafter CCB) represents the Division of Prisons as the states' inmate classification authority. The CCB changed Wetzel's status from maximum to close custody in 1973 and recommended his transfer to Caledonia, then a close custody unit. Appellant Edwards, the Director of Prisons, refused to allow the transfer. The CCB again recommended transfer to Caledonia in March, 1974, and this transfer was denied.

Wetzel was promoted to medium custody in August of 1974, however, he was retained at Central Prison. The Institutional Classification Committee (hereinafter ICC) recommended Wetzel's transfer to a medium custody facility. Edwards and appellant Kautzky, the Deputy Director of Prisons, refused to act on the suggestion. The ICC has reiterated its position recommending that Wetzel be transferred.

It is the responsibility of the ICC to consider Wetzel for minimum custody status. Since August of 1975, the ICC has reviewed Wetzel for minimum custody every six months. The ICC has failed to recommend such a change in custody classification expressly because Wetzel has not spent time in a medium custody facility.

Wetzel filed a grievance with the Inmate Grievance Commission (hereinafter IGC) in 1977 which ruled, after a hearing, that he had been treated unequally. It recommended to appellant Reed, Secretary of the Department of Correction, that Wetzel be given the same consideration for transfer as similarly situated inmates who have been classified as medium custody by the CCB. In fact, Wetzel is the only medium custody inmate permanently housed at Central Prison. Nonetheless, the IGC's recommendation has been ignored by the Department of Corrections. Wetzel has retained his medium custody status over the past six years without incurring adverse sanctions due to infraction of prison rules, yet he has not been transferred to a medium custody facility.

The essence of Wetzel's case is that, although he has been classified as a medium custody prisoner by the classification authorities of the Division of Prisons, appellants have refused to transfer him from Central Prison, North Carolina's only maximum custody institution, to a medium custody facility, in spite of the fact that Wetzel is deemed to be a model prisoner by the prison authorities. Wetzel alleges he has been denied the opportunities available at medium custody units, such as rehabilitative programs and the ability to achieve minimum custody and honor grade status. Moreover, he contends that honor grade and minimum custody are prerequisites to meaningful parole considerations.

The appellants emphasize the availability of the mutual agreement parole plan (hereinafter MAP). This is an agreement between the inmate, the Division of Prisons and the Parole Commission under which the Commission sets a certain date for release and the Division agrees to allow the prisoner to participate in certain activities. Successful completion of the activities insures release on the specified date. This program is not embodied in the prison regulations but apparently is fully developed. Edwards stated in an affidavit that the Division would give serious consideration to putting Wetzel on the MAP program once the Commission indicates that he is a serious parole candidate. Moreover, Mr. Woodward, chairman of the Commission, stated, based on past experiences, that he felt that the Division would cooperate if and when the Commission requested that Wetzel be transferred to another facility for observation for parole. From this, appellants insist that Wetzel's presence at Central Prison does not hurt his parole chances.


The ultimate merits of the controversy are not before us on appeal and we do not decide them. This court decides only whether the grant of interlocutory relief to Wetzel was appropriate under the facts of this case.

The standard of review on appeal is whether the record shows an abuse of discretion by the district court, not whether the appellate court would have granted or denied the injunction. Sinclair Refining Co. v. Midland Oil Co., 55 F.2d 42, 45 (4th Cir. 1932).

Preliminary injunctions are not to be granted automatically. First Citizens Bank & Trust Co. v. Camp, 432 F.2d 481, 483 (4th Cir. 1970). Moreover, "(w) here serious...

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