NC inmate can proceed with lawsuit challenging ‘retaliatory’ prison transfer

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  • The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals will allow a prison inmate in North Carolina to proceed with a retaliatory-transfer lawsuit against a state prison official.
  • Appellate judges will not allow inmate Jordan Andrew Jones to proceed with Eighth Amendment claims against more than 30 officials in connection with the conditions of his confinement.
  • Jones had challenged the procedures prison officials used when they suspected him of eating contraband in 2015.

A federal Appeals Court will allow a prison inmate in North Carolina to move forward with a lawsuit challenging his transfer. The inmate claims prison officials retaliated against him because he complained about his treatment behind bars.

While inmate Jordan Andrew Jones can proceed with his retaliatory-transfer claim, the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals rejected his suit challenging the conditions of his confinement.

The legal dispute stemmed from actions that took place on April 27, 2015, at North Carolina’s Avery-Mitchell Correctional Institution.

Prison officials saw Jones place an unidentified item in his mouth around noon. Jones claimed the item was candy. Officials suspected he had taken “contraband,” according to the 4th Circuit’s majority opinion.

Authorities placed Jones in a prison cell with no running water and required him to “produce three bowel movements” before he would be allowed to return to standard housing conditions. Jones’ complaints about the process included prison officials’ refusal to allow him to wash or sanitize his hands, even when he had a chance to eat.

“He thus went without running water for about 17 hours (about 15.5 hours after the first bowel movement), was in soiled clothing for about 23 hours, and went without a shower, soap, or cleaning supplies for about 30 hours following his first bowel movement,” wrote Judge James Wynn.

After he returned to standard prison housing, Jones started filing grievances about his treatment. In October 2015, assistant prison superintendent Gregory Taylor urged Jones to “’ease up on the grievances’ because they ‘were not helping [Jones] stay at Avery-Mitchell,’” Wynn wrote.

Within two days of that meeting, Taylor ordered Jones transferred to Lanesboro Correctional Institution. “The transfer was unwelcome: Lanesboro was ‘widely known to be a dangerous facility’ and had ‘a much worse reputation than Avery-Mitchell,’” Wynn wrote. An inmate who had assaulted Jones was housed at Lanesboro. Jones also had to give up a computer applications class because of the transfer.

“These facts depict a sequence of events that are gross, degrading, and deeply concerning,” Wynn wrote. “And we have serious doubts about their constitutionality. But, even assuming Defendants violated Jones’s Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, we conclude that they are entitled to qualified immunity.”

“Under binding case law, … a defendant official is entitled to qualified immunity where his actions did not violate a clearly established right,” the majority opinion explained. “And while it was clearly established in 2015 that prisoners were entitled to basically sanitary living conditions, it was not clearly established that conditions of the caliber set forth by the record here were so unsanitary as to alert Defendants that they had crossed the constitutional line.”

While Jones cannot pursue his Eighth Amendment claims against any of the more than 30 defendants named in his lawsuit, the Appeals Court will allow him to pursue his retaliatory-transfer claim against Taylor.

“Viewed in the light most favorable to Jones, the facts in this case support the conclusion that the transfer was an adverse action,” Wynn wrote. “The evidence indicates that Lanesboro was, at minimum, perceived by inmates to be more dangerous than Avery-Mitchell. And Lanesboro posed a particular danger for Jones: another prisoner who had previously assaulted him was housed there.”

“Moreover, we can infer from the prison officials’ statements that Jones’s transfer was intended to be punitive, which suggests that something about that transfer — whether having to leave Avery-Mitchell, having to go to Lanesboro, or both — was intended to negatively impact Jones,” Wynn added.

Chief Judge Albert Diaz joined Wynn’s opinion. Judge Robert King agreed with the result but wrote separately.

The majority opinion “does not answer the important question of whether such treatment contravenes the Eighth Amendment. I would conclude that it did,” King wrote. “On this record, Jones was forced to eat and sleep in an alarmingly soiled state. Forcing a human being to eat his food using hands dirtied by fecal matter is well beyond contemporary standards of decency, and carries with it a substantial risk to personal health.”

“I nevertheless agree with my good colleagues that an award of qualified immunity is appropriate with respect to Jones’s Eighth Amendment claim,” King added. “When the constitutional violation that I would recognize occurred, the law of our Circuit did not clearly establish the scope of Jones’s constitutional right to basic elements of hygiene.”