Women Prisoners of the District of Columbia Department of Corrections, et al. v. District of Columbia

877 F.Supp. 634 (D.D.C. 1994)
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Women inmates in the District of Columbia (D.C.) correctional system alleged that they were being mistreated in a variety of ways, including sexual harassment, failure to provide or inadequate levels of obstetrical and gynecological care, unequal educational and work-related programming  as compared to similarly situated male inmates, uneven recreational and religious time, and general inhumane conditions ranging from roach infestation to fire hazards. They further alleged that DC corrections officials were both aware of these conditions and indifferent to them, as evidenced by the former administrator of one facility stating that “You just get this sense that [sexual misconduct] has always happened and it is always going to happen.” This suit was filed as a class action on behalf of all women prisoners in the DC correctional system alleging sex discrimination in violation of Title IX, violations of the Fifth and Eighth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and violations of DC law.

The Court held that  D.C. violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, D.C. Code § 24-442, and the Fifth and Eighth Amendment rights of women prisoners in the D.C. correctional system because of its indifference toward sexual harassment and unequal opportunities and treatment for women as compared to men in similar correctional systems, including inadequate medical care, programming, and facility conditions.

The Court held that the two elements for an Eighth Amendment claim of cruel and unusual punishment were met. First, D.C.’s lack of adequate medical treatment and acceptance of rape and other coerced touching of women prisoners’ genitals met amounted to  “wanton and unnecessary infliction of pain” because it violated basic standards of decency and had tangible effects on women’s health and wellbeing. Second, the defendants exhibited “deliberate indifference” to inmate health or safety by knowing about  the gross violations and inadequacy in each category and disregarding the risks they presented to women inmates. Similarly, the shackling of pregnant women prisoners and lack of child visitation and child placement counseling for new mothers both cruelly and harmfully offended basic notions of decency and was a practice of which the corrections facilities were aware and indifferent. Other facility conditions, such as creation of fire hazards, roach infestations, lack of heating, and excessive crowding and uncleanliness, also violated the Eighth Amendment.

The Court held that exercising a government “custom” of sexual harassment (as indicated by the former administrator’s description of sexual harassment as a practice that has always happened and will continue to happen in the future), handcuffing pregnant prisoners, providing inadequate child placement counseling and visitation, and the other aforementioned mistreatments of women prisoners despite the official policies against such practices all constituted violations of civil rights law, 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

The Court held that failure to provide adequate gynecological care, shackling of pregnant women, inadequate child visitation and placement counseling, and lack of fire safety deviated from an acceptable standard of care, violating D.C. Code § 24-442, which states that DC’s Department of Corrections is responsible for the “safekeeping, care, protection, instruction, and discipline” of its inmates.

The Court held that Title IX provides that women must have equal opportunities, although not necessarily identical in number or content, to take part in academic, extracurricular, occupational, or other education programs operated by federally-funded entities as compared to men who are similarly situated (for inmates, the “similarly situated” test was based on custody levels, incarceration purposes, and sentence structures). Within the DC correctional system, women had only half the access to educational classes as similarly situated men, and they also had unequal access to vocational and apprenticeship programs, work training (especially in skilled work), religious programming, and recreational time and activities. These all constituted violations of Title IX. However, because opportunities to work in industrial programs existed at both women’s and men’s prisons (albeit different types — print and garment for women; dairy and landscape for men), those specific programs were deemed equivalent and did not violate Title IX.

Finally, the Court held that the prisons’ non-smoking policy did not violate the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment because the treatment of inmates for substance abuse is an important governmental objective to which non-smoking policy was substantially related because smoking is inconsistent with substance abuse treatment. However, the Court found that its ruling that the sexual harassment of women convicts violated the Eighth Amendment necessarily means that the harassment violated pretrial detainees’ Fifth Amendment rights as well.

A subsequent ruling largely affirmed this decision, refused to stay the order for injunctive relief to the plaintiffs, and slightly modified a few remedies that the correctional system was ordered to provide. See Women Prisoners of the D.C. Dep't of Corrs. v. District of Columbia, 899 F. Supp. 659 (D.D.C. 1995).

“The evidence revealed a level of sexual harassment which is so malicious that it violates contemporary standards of decency. The physical assaults endured by women prisoners at the [prison facilities] unquestionably violate the Eighth Amendment. Rape, coerced sodomy, unsolicited touching of women prisoners' vaginas, breasts and buttocks by prison employees are ‘simply not part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society.’... The Court concludes that the Plaintiffs have proven an Eighth Amendment violation by demonstrating a level of sexual harassment that is objectively cruel and to which the Defendants are deliberately indifferent.” Pages 665-666.

“The evidence demonstrates that the Defendants have deviated from the standard of acceptable medical care for women prisoners. The Court holds that the record supports Dr. Major's testimony as to the following deviations from the general standard of adequate medical care: deficient gynecological examination and testing (R. 3-58.), inadequate testing for sexually transmitted diseases (R. 3-73 to 3-74.), inadequate follow-up care (3-79 to 3-80, 3-83.), grossly inadequate health education (R. 3-86.), inadequate prenatal care (R. 3-94.), inadequate prenatal protocol (R. 3-95.) and ineffective prenatal education (R. 3-115.). These problems are compounded by the Defendants' inability to provide a reliable system of transportation or a confidential sick call process. Consequently, women prisoners miss appointments for lack of a vehicle or refuse help for fear of revealing the details of their medical history... The necessary reforms in obstetrical and gynecological care must be more comprehensive to bring the Defendants into compliance with D.C. Code § 24-442.” Pages 667-668.

“The Plaintiffs have shown that the living conditions of women prisoners at the Annex violate contemporary standards of decency. The combination of certain conditions of confinement satisfies the objective component of Eighth Amendment analysis because the conditions are very likely to cause serious illness and needless suffering. The infestation of roaches, torn mattresses, inadequate bathing and toilet facilities, excessive crowding, lack of mechanical ventilation, unclean floors, inadequate drainage, inadequate lighting, and uncovered dumpsters all have been shown to raise the risk of illness and injury to a constitutionally unacceptable level. The filthy condition of the kitchen area at Minimum, food served at hazardously low temperatures, the failure to use liners in the laundry carts, and inadequate ventilation at the printing and garment shop also expose women prisoners to a similarly unacceptable risk of illness and injury.” Page 670.

“The Defendants argue that women are more likely to have the responsibility of caring for a child. (Id. at 12.) It would be truly ironic if this unfortunately true difference succeeded as a rationale for unequal opportunity in educational, recreational, religious and work programs. Though prisons should have leeway in determining how best to address the parenting responsibilities of women, ‘parenting programs’ are not a valid substitute for educational and occupational programs. Title IX embodies a Congressional recognition that education and employment are the primary routes by which women may materially improve their lives.” Page 676.

Women Prisoners of the D.C. Dep't of Corrs. v. District of Columbia, 899 F. Supp. 659 (D.D.C. 1995), order affirming and modifying the decision,  download here.