WASHINGTON – A divided appeals court ruled that Maryland prison guards did not use excessive force when they sprayed an inmate 12 times with pepper spray and then locked him, shackled in his underwear, in a bare cell for two days.
The Monday decision by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a 1995 U.S. District Court jury verdict that awarded prisoner Quinten X. Jackson $9,501 in damages.
Judges J. Harvie Wilkinson III and Patrick Michael Duffy wrote that “no reasonable jury could find excessive force was used” in the 1994 confrontation between Jackson and six guards at the state’s super maximum security prison in Baltimore.
But Judge Diana Gribbon Motz dissented, saying there was “ample evidence” that “correctional officers maliciously and sadistically used excessive force to inflict unnecessary and wanton pain” on Jackson, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
The case stems from a Jan. 11, 1994, “shakedown” at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in which guards go cell to cell, telling inmates to strip and hand their clothes out before the cells are searched.
Correctional officers said Jackson refused to cooperate, so a six-man “response team” in riot gear was called. Jackson said the response team showed up only after he told officers that he wanted to file a complaint because they repeatedly made him turn in circles after he was naked.
The response team said it followed procedure for subduing a prisoner, videotaping its actions as one of the guards sprayed pepper spray into the cell. Jackson was sprayed 12 times in the face and groin, once for six seconds, according to court documents. He said it was impossible for him to cooperate because he was in such pain.
Jackson eventually handed out his clothes and was taken to the prison’s medical center, where a nurse treated him by rinsing his head under running water and giving him wet paper towels to wash his groin area.
On the way to the medical center, Jackson said he was “speaking in tongues” from the pain and that one of the guards struck him. The officers said he was shouting obscenities and threats at them, but they denied hitting him. The three judges, watching the videotape, came to two different conclusions, with Motz saying he was hit and Wilkinson and Duffy concluding that he was not.
After being treated, Jackson was taken to the “Pink Room,” which he described as a “bare cell of approximately 10 feet by 10 feet with metal walls, a concrete floor and no furniture.” Motz said the cell “lacked a toilet and instead had a hole in the floor, covered by a grate, which during Jackson’s confinement was encrusted with feces and blood.”
She said that Jackson, clothed only in underwear, was not given any bedding, clothing or other means of staying warm. He was kept in painful restraints that kept him from eating or removing his underpants to urinate, Motz wrote.
“It was certainly reasonable for the jury to conclude that they (guards) acted both maliciously and sadistically in confining Jackson to the Pink Room in these conditions for a period of nearly two days,” Motz wrote.
But an attorney for the prison guards said that pepper spray and confinement are typical procedures in maximum-security prisons. The officers testified that Jackson was “yelling obscenities and banging on the walls” during the shakedown, said their attorney, Glenn Bell. “He snatched handcuffs away from one of the officers.”
Wilkinson and Duffy agreed with the correctional officers that “the deprivation suffered (by Jackson) was not sufficiently serious” for an excessive force claim to succeed. They noted that jurors awarded $9,500 in punitive damages against the officers, but just $1 for actual damages, indicating that the jury believed Jackson suffered “less than substantial injury.”