By Candia Dames
WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Monday let stand a lower court’s ruling that Maryland prison guards did not use excessive force when they repeatedly sprayed an inmate with pepper spray, shackled him in his underwear and locked him away in an isolation cell for two days.
Quinten X. Jackson had asked the Supreme Court to consider his case, arguing that circuit courts are divided on whether inmates have to prove “a threshold level of injury” to pursue an excessive force claim.
But the court, without comment, let stand a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that overturned an initial finding that guards at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore had used excessive force in the 1994 incident.
Jackson, who is now out of prison and living in Hagerstown, according to his attorney, declined comment on the ruling Monday. But the attorney, Brian Zemil, said the ruling will do little to stem future abuses by prison guards.
“The (high) court will continue to condone the 4th Circuit’s permission of officers to inflict pain that does not cause physical manifestation of injury,” Zemil said. “Officers will then continue to do it.”
But Assistant Attorney General Glenn Bell said the 4th Circuit acted properly and that the high court was right to refuse Jackson’s appeal.
The case began during a “shakedown” at the prison on Jan. 11, 1994, when inmates are required to strip and hand their clothes over to guards for inspection. Officers said Jackson was uncooperative, and they called a response team that subdued him with 12 blasts of pepper spray.
After being sprayed, Jackson complied and was then taken to the prison’s medical center and “decontaminated,” where the state said he continued to be disruptive.
But Jackson claimed the treatment he received at the medical center was inadequate. He told a lower court that he suffered “burning pain, swollen and running eyes, groin pain, burning sensations in his throat and difficulty breathing,” as a result of the spraying. He said officers withheld food for 16 hours and that his restraints were so tight they hurt every time he moved.
Jackson’s attorneys also said that he was put in an isolation cell known as the “Pink Room,” described as “a barren and cold chamber with metal walls and a concrete floor. It had no toilet, bed, bedding or running water. The walls were encrusted with feces, as was a grate in the center of the camber.”
Jackson sued the officers in 1995, claiming they violated his Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment in the episode.
Attorneys for the state argued that the case was not one of “malicious and sadistic attack by correctional officers upon an innocent, non-violent inmate that miraculously caused no injury.” They said, rather, the case was about a “disruptive inmate.”
A district court jury disagreed, awarding Jackson $1 in compensatory damages and $9,500 in punitive damages.
After watching a videotape of the incident, however, the appeals court ruled that “the deprivation suffered (by Jackson) was not sufficiently serious” for an excessive force claim to succeed. Judges J. Harvie Wilkinson III and Patrick Michael Duff wrote that “no reasonable jury could find excessive force was used” in the confrontation.
But Judge Diana Gribbon Motz said when “prison officials maliciously and sadistically use force to cause harm, contemporary standards of decency always are violated. This is true whether or not significant injury is evident.”
State attorneys said the videotape showed Jackson completely recovered from the pepper spray and that a medical record shows he had no complaints until two weeks after he was sprayed and placed in isolation.
But Jackson’s attorney said he was disappointed in Monday’s decision.
“My real reaction is that justice is denied to Mr. Jackson,” Zemil said.