Cruel and Unusual Punishment:

Thomas v. Baca, 2007 WL 2758741 (C.D. Cal. Sept. 21), holds that the L.A. County Jail's practice of having many inmates (pre-trial detainees and post-conviction prisoners) sleep on mattresses on the floor violates the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause (as to prisoners) and the Due Process Clause (as to detainees).

Interestingly, though, the finding wasn't based on a conclusion that such a practice caused unacceptable physical discomfort, or hygiene problems. Rather, it seems that the court thought that requiring people to sleep on mattresses (presumably with adequate other bedding) rather than on bunks was just an unacceptable indignity:

[T]he Court finds that requiring inmates to sleep on the floor deprives them of a minimum measure of civilized treatment and access to life's necessities because access to a bed is an integral part of the “adequate shelter” mandated by the Eighth Amendment. The “routine discomfort inherent in the prison setting” may not state a constitutional claim, but depriving inmates of beds goes deeper. The Constitution clearly does not allow prisoners to suffer the deprivation of adequate food or water. Just so, prisons may not deprive those in their care of a basic place to sleep -- a bed; for like wearing clothing, sleeping in a bed identifies our common humanity.

That many individuals, for cultural or health reasons, choose to sleep on the floor in no way detracts from this point. A predilection for camping under the stars or the soothing touch a hard futon may have on a sore back is entirely different in kind from stripping an individual of the option of using a bed. Quite simply, that a custom of leaving inmates nowhere to sleep but the floor constitutes cruel and unusual punishment is nothing short of self-evident.

The Court is not alone in finding that a minimum degree of civilized conduct demands such a conclusion. In Lareau v. Manson, 651 F.2d 96, 107-08 (2d Cir.1981) (emphasis added), for example, the Second Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling that “forcing men to sleep on mattresses on the floors” violates the Eighth Amendment because it does “not provide minimum decent housing under any circumstances for any period of time.” Similarly, the Third Circuit, in holding that a county's remedial plan to improve conditions in its jail would satisfy Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment requirements of adequate shelter if, inter alia, it provided inmates with “bunk-type beds of their own,” characterized forced floor-sleeping, even with mattresses, as an “unsanitary and humiliating practice.” Union County Jail Inmates v. Di Buono, 713 F.2d 984, 996, 1001 (3d Cir.1983); see also Lyons v. Powell, 838 F.2d 28, 30 (1st Cir.1988)(holding that floor-sleeping with mattress stated cognizable Fourteenth Amendment violation); Anela, 790 F.2d at 1069 (same, in light of Lareau and Union County); Albano v. Mitchell, No. C 97-3781, 1998 WL 101743, at *1 (N.D.Cal. Feb.24, 1998) (unpublished) (noting that allegations of floor-sleeping “may be sufficient to implicate denial of the minimum civilized measures of life's necessities”); Loya v. Bd. of County Comm'rs, No. CV 91-216, 1992 WL 176131, at *2 (D.Idaho May 4, 1992) (unpublished) (noting its own previous holding that “sleeping on the floor is constitutionally prohibited”); Balla v. Bd. of Corr., 656 F.Supp. 1108, 1114 (D.Idaho 1987) (enjoining floor-sleeping and characterizing it as “dehumanizing, intolerable and certainly of no penological benefit”); Capps v. Atiyeh, 495 F.Supp. 802 (D.Or.1980)(holding that overcrowded conditions which led to practices including floor-sleeping violated the Eighth Amendment); Stewart v. Gates, 450 F.Supp. 583, 588 (C.D.Cal.1978) (holding floor-sleeping unconstitutional).

The basic humanity inherent in providing access to a bed highlights the practice of forced floor-sleeping as one of the unconstitutional effects of prison overcrowding.... [O]vercrowding “may dilute other constitutionally required services such that they fall below the minimum Eighth Amendment standards, and it may reach a level at which the shelter of the inmates is unfit for human habitation.” IdForcing inmates to sleep on the floor stoops to that unconstitutional level.

International guidelines support this basic right. See, e.g., Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 578, 125 S.Ct. 1183, 161 L.Ed.2d 1 (2005) (considering “international opinion” in Eighth Amendment analysis); Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 122 S.Ct. 2242, 153 L.Ed.2d 335 (2002) (same). For example, the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which contain guidelines regarding confinement conditions and set forth minimum acceptable prison conditions, provide that “[e]very prisoner shall, in accordance with local or national standards, be provided with a separate bed, and with separate and sufficient bedding which shall be clean when issued, kept in good order and changed often enough to ensure its cleanliness.” United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners, E.S.C. Res. 663 C (XXIV), U.N. ESCOR, 24th Sess., Supp. No. 1, ¶ 19, U.N. Doc. E/3048 (1957) (amended 1977) (emphasis added); see Lareau, 651 F.2d at 106 (relying on these standards in assessing the meaning of “adequate shelter” and holding floor-sleeping unconstitutional).

It sounds like there is indeed precedent for the court's decision (though I haven't myself read the lower court cases that the opinion cites, I have no reason to doubt the court's summary of the cases). But isn't this a strange result? Is the presence or absence of a bunk (not of a moderately comfortable place to sleep, but a bunk as such) really a question of constitutional dimension? Even accepting the Court's holdings that the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause applies to conditions of confinement, is placing mattresses on the floor really constitutionally "cruel"?

In any case, this isn't my core area of expertise, so perhaps I'm missing something here; still, the case seemed worth mentioning to our readers.