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Prisoner Lawsuit Over Transparent Jumpsuit Can Proceed

By Mark Wilson, Esq. | Last updated on

The Seventh Circuit last week allowed a prisoner's lawsuit to proceed, overruling a district court that tossed the case on summary judgment.

Marshall King, a county jail prisoner in Illinois, was forced to wear a transparent jumpsuit "that exposed his genitals and buttocks" while being transferred to state prison. The requirement appeared to be unique to King's jail, as other prisoners being transferred weren't wearing such outfits. When King complained to guards about the jumpsuit, they laughed at him.

Failure to Exhaust Impossible Remedies

The Prison Litigation Reform Act requires that prisoners asserting civil rights complaints exhaust all their administrative remedies first. The district court said that King failed to do so, but the Seventh Circuit wasn't convinced. PLRA requires prisoners exhaust remedies that are "available." In King's case, he remained at an intake facility for a week before he was moved to state prison. He wrote to the county jail to complain about the jumpsuit, but received no response. He wrote to the state department of corrections, but was told they didn't control county jail decisions.

Given the short window of time in which he would have been required to pursue administrative remedies, and his being shifted from jail to jail, the court found that "[t]he jail has imposed a timetable that makes it practically impossible for transferred prisoners to pursue their grievances about the transfer process." Even though administrative remedies were technically available, the court said, the question is whether they were actually available. The court found they were not, and excused King's failure to use them, emphasizing that prisons can't intentionally impose impossible administrative requirements so as to preemptively block prisoner litigation.

Transparently Cruel

The Seventh Circuit also reversed the district court on the merits of King's Eighth Amendment claim. It characterized King's see-through jumpsuit (which even the jail conceded was "less than opaque") as roughly equivalent to an ongoing strip search. The court also didn't buy the jail's argument that the jumpsuit was necessary for security. For one thing, the court said, other prisoners from other jails didn't have to wear them. For another, all inmates are strip-searched before they leave the jail and after they arrive at a new facility, and are kept under guard throughout. That's fairly tight security, tending "to suggest there was no security reason for keeping transferees in a state of semi-nudity.

Moreover, King's allegation that he was mocked when he objected to the jumpsuit is enough at this stage to raise at least the possibility that the policy was driven by a desire to humiliate or harass," the court said.

Notably, the district court did allow King's case to proceed as to a Fourth Amendment violation. The Seventh Circuit reversed this ruling, too, finding that King had no reasonable expectation of privacy as a convicted prisoner in custody. While the law doesn't allow suspicionless searches into a prisoner's body, the court said, "visual strip-searches" don't run afoul of the Fourth Amendment.

Judge David Hamilton concurred to object to the Fourth Amendment issue. In his opinion, case law on prisoners' external bodily integrity is uncertain. He would at least have allowed that claim to proceed at the district court level, given that it was at such an early part of the litigation.

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