Mimesis Law
15 August 2020

Naked And Afraid Detainees Get Their Day In Court

February 7, 2017 (Fault Lines) — If you are incarcerated at the Cole County Detention Center in Jefferson City, Missouri, you are issued one set of clothes. Men get underwear, an undershirt, pants, outer shirt, socks, and shoes. Women get a bra as well. These clothes get dirty, because jails aren’t the most sanitary places, and need to be washed on a regular basis. Fortunately, Cole County does laundry.

The problem with the Cole County Detention Center’s laundry policy is detainees* don’t get an extra set of clothes when it comes time to wash the ones on their person. These garments are taken at night, washed by jail staff, and returned the following morning. Female detainees get their clothes washed every four days. Men get their clothes washed every two to three.

While the clothes are washed at night and returned the following morning, there’s a big problem in play. Specifically, the detainees are nude during laundry hours, with only a bed sheet and blanket to cover them for privacy. There’s also a policy at the jail preventing the cell windows from being covered, so potential peeping Toms or Tonyas would have a field day if they so desired.

A few detainees had enough of this policy and decided to sue Cole County, Sheriff Greg White, and Chief Deputy John Wheeler, alleging the laundry policy violated their Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment. One would think rational heads would prevail, and a court would manage to mandate some funds to get detainees clothing. That, of course, is not what happened.

The U.S. District Court originally entertaining the detainees’ claim dismissed it as “no more than minimal deprivation” of their rights. Since laundry was done at night, the District Court concluded it wasn’t the same as if the detainees were going about their day to day activities buck naked. There was no right for detainees to not be seen naked by guards of the opposite sex, even if it involved those guards bringing in clothes to nude detainees.

All of this amounted to what the U.S. District Court called a “de minimis” violation of the detainees’ rights. If you’re not a lawyer or fluent in Latin, that means “minimal” or “trivial,” and one of the first Latin phrases you’re taught in law school is “de minimis non curat lex,” or “the law does not concern itself with trifles.” Apparently the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals didn’t think the detainees’ concerns too much of a trifle when this case hit their docket.

The defendants argue that these facts present “only a de minimis discomfort which is a necessary consequence of detention.” We disagree.We conclude that this practice constitutes more than a de minimis deprivation.Of course “[l]oss of freedom of choice and privacy are inherent incidents of [prison]confinement.” Bell, 441 U.S. at 537. “And the fact that such detention interferes with the detainee’s understandable desire to live as comfortably as possible and with as little restraint as possible during confinement does not convert the conditions  or restrictions of detention into ‘punishment.’”

But the distinguishing fact here is frequency. Each deprivation is not exceedingly long, but the deprivations are repetitive and are expected to last the full duration of confinement…And while there is “no general right not to be seen naked by guards of the opposite sex,” Hill v. McKinley, 311 F.3d 899, 909(8th Cir. 2002), and a detainee’s expectation of privacy is “of a diminished scope,”Bell, 441 U.S. at 557, detainees are still entitled to clothing. Because  the  laundry  policy’s  imposition  is  more  than  de  minimis,  we ask whether it is reasonably related to a legitimate governmental purpose. Id. The defendants have not asserted one. The district court, reviewing the jail regulations cited by the plaintiffs, concluded that the policy promoted cleanliness and hygiene.(Emphasis added.)

In case you aren’t familiar with the levels of constitutionality previously when it comes to challenging statues, ordinances, and laws, the Eighth Circuit applied a “rational basis” standard to the Cole County Detention Center’s laundry policy. That’s the easiest bar for the government to meet, because all they have to do is show some semblance of a rational reason for depriving people of a specific right. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals said they couldn’t even manage to do that.

The best the defendants could manage was a mealy-mouthed excuse of “our policies promote cleanliness and hygiene, so that makes it rational.” The Eighth Circuit called bullshit. It wasn’t just “bullshit” in the traditional, reasoned, jurist way, it was a “We’re tired of your shitty excuses” level of calling out bullshit.

The district court, reviewing the jail regulations cited by the plaintiffs, concluded that the policy promoted cleanliness and hygiene. A policy of cleanliness, though, does not explain why the jail is unable to stock and wash enough clothes to avoid extended periods without clothing on a more or less permanent basis. Because the record reveals no legitimate objective behind this policy, it plausibly amounts to unconstitutional punishment.

This is a good ruling, and a victory for the incarcerated. It’s been long enough since screws have allowed inmates to boil to death, get beaten over issues of mental illness, and blatantly raped some of the most vulnerable society offers us. It’s sad that it took an issue of prisoner nudity to make the courts take notice and finally administer justice.

*The Eighth Circuit lumped “Detainees” and “Inmates” into one ruling.

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