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Peterkin v. Jeffes

filed: August 23, 1988.


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, D.C. Civil Action No. 83-0304.

Higginbotham, Mansmann and Weis*fn*, Circuit Judges.

Author: Higginbotham



Two constitutional issues are raised on appeal in this class action: whether prisoners sentenced to death by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and currently imprisoned at the State Correctional Institutions at Graterford and Huntingdon are confined in conditions constituting cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the eighth amendment, and whether the Commonwealth and its prison officials are providing these prisoners with sufficient legal resources to vindicate their constitutional right of access to the courts. In deciding these issues, we are primarily guided by the Supreme Court's decisions in Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 69 L. Ed. 2d 59, 101 S. Ct. 2392 (1981), applying the eighth amendment to prison conditions, and Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 52 L. Ed. 2d 72, 97 S. Ct. 1491 (1977), holding "that the fundamental constitutional right of access to the courts requires prison authorities to assist inmates in the preparation and filing of meaningful legal papers by providing prisoners with adequate law libraries or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law." Id. at 828. The district court found that the prison conditions in Pennsylvania's death rows do not violate the eighth amendment. Peterkin v. Jeffes, 661 F. Supp. 895, 926 (E.D. Pa. 1987). We agree that the prisoners have not established that the totality of the conditions of their confinement constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Based on its factual finding that "all of the capital inmates have access to counsel," id. at 928, the district court also held that the Commonwealth provides death-sentenced prisoners constitutionally adequate legal resources. Our view is that certain of the district court's factual findings related to this issue are unsupported by the record. We will affirm the district court's opinion on the plaintiffs' eighth amendment claim, vacate the district court's holding concerning access to the courts, and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.


The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania reinstated capital punishment in 1978. 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 9711 (Purdon 1982). From that time until November, 1982, the state incarcerated prisoners under sentence of death among the general population in the state's maximum security correctional institutions at Graterford, Huntingdon and Pittsburgh. In November, 1982, after the death penalty statute withstood constitutional challenges, the Commissioner of Corrections, Ronald Marks, decided that henceforth all prisoners under sentence of death would be confined in those prisons' Restricted Housing Units (RHU's) in administrative custody. This litigation began in January, 1983, when a group of death-sentenced prisoners,*fn1 acting pro se,*fn2 filed a complaint against officials of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and its Bureau of Corrections*fn3 on behalf of all such prisoners, alleging that the Department of Corrections' decision to segregate them on "death rows" violated their rights to equal protection of the laws and substantive due process under the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution. They also challenged and sought relief from certain rules and conditions of confinement in the RHU's, alleging that these violated the eighth amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, the first amendment's guarantee of the free exercise of religion, and the constitutional right of access to the courts.

In June, 1984, the district court, exercising jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1343 (West Supp. 1986), and in response to a motion for summary judgment by the Commonwealth defendants, dismissed the plaintiff-class's*fn4 fourteenth amendment challenges to the decision by the Bureau of Corrections to segregate death-sentenced prisoners. On the conditions of confinement issues, the district court held a bench trial, including nine days of testimony, two of which took place at Graterford, where death row inmates from both Graterford and Huntingdon testified. The trial judge also visited the RHU at Graterford twice, in June and December, 1986. On May 4, 1987, the district court entered its decision and order granting judgment in favor of Pennsylvania's prison officials on all claims. Peterkin v. Jeffes, 661 F. Supp. 895 (E.D. Pa. 1987). The plaintiff-class filed a timely appeal.

II. The Eighth Amendment Challenge

A. Cruel and Unusual Punishment

For conditions of confinement in prisons to constitute cruel and unusual punishment within the meaning of the eighth amendment of the constitution,*fn5 the Supreme Court, in Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 69 L. Ed. 2d 59, 101 S. Ct. 2392 (1981), has said that these conditions "must . . . involve the wanton and unnecessary infliction of pain, [or] be grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime warranting imprisonment." Id. at 347. The eighth amendment, the Court instructed, "'must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.'" Id. at 346 (quoting Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101, 2 L. Ed. 2d 630, 78 S. Ct. 590 (1958) (plurality opinion)). Today the eighth amendment prohibits the denial of medical care, Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 50 L. Ed. 2d 251, 97 S. Ct. 285 (1976), "because, in the worst case, it can result in physical torture, and, even in less serious cases, it can result in pain without any penological purpose." Rhodes, 452 U.S. at 347. The "dark and evil world," Holt v. Sarver, 309 F. Supp. 362, 381 (E.D. Ark. 1970) (Holt II), of the Arkansas prison described in Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678, 57 L. Ed. 2d 522, 98 S. Ct. 2565 (1978), imposed cruel and unusual punishment on its prisoners, the Supreme Court held, because its conditions "resulted in unquestioned and serious deprivation of basic human needs." Rhodes, 452 U.S. at 347.

Although the Supreme Court recognizes there is "no static 'test' . . . by which courts [can] determine whether conditions of confinement are cruel and unusual." Rhodes, 452 U.S. at 346, the inquiry that courts must conduct in eighth amendment cases is not consequently less exacting. "'Eighth Amendment judgments,'" the Court teaches, "'should neither be nor appear to be merely the subjective views' of judges." Rhodes, 452 U.S. at 346 (quoting Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263, 275, 63 L. Ed. 2d 382, 100 S. Ct. 1133 (1980)). Rather, these judgments "'should be informed by objective factors to the maximum possible extent.'" Rummell v. Estelle, 445 U.S. at 274-275, (quoting Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584, 592, 53 L. Ed. 2d 982, 97 S. Ct. 2861 (1977) (plurality opinion)), quoted in Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. at 346. Impartiality and objectivity, however, do not provide a haven from judicial responsibility. "'[T]he Constitution contemplates that in the end [a court's] own judgment will be brought to bear on the question of the acceptability' of a given punishment." Rhodes, 452 U.S. at 346 (quoting Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. at 597; citing Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 182, 49 L. Ed. 2d 859, 96 S. Ct. 2909 (1976)).

The district courts bear an especially critical burden of responsibility in eighth amendment cases involving prison conditions, because "[a] reviewing court is generally limited in its perception of a case to the findings of a trial court," Rhodes, 452 U.S. at 365 (Brennan, Blackmun and Stevens, JJ., concurring). That this case concerns Pennsylvania's death rows and is a class action on behalf of all the state's death row prisoners, increases the solemn and sensitive nature of the judicial inquiry. The district court's opinion, in our view, reflects an acute awareness of that responsibility and a conscientious and thoughtful effort to discharge it.

We find no flaw in the district court's method of analyzing the eighth amendment issues in this case. In actions challenging a large number of prison conditions, a district court, we agree, must inquire whether "the challenged conditions 'alone or in combination'" violate eighth amendment standards, "recognizing that the totality of the conditions 'may deprive inmates of the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities.'" Peterkin, 661 F. Supp. at 900 (quoting Rhodes, 452 U.S. at 347). This approach reflects the Supreme Court's language and analysis in Rhodes and adheres to this Court's articulation of the proper analysis in eighth amendment cases involving multiple prison conditions. See Union County Jail Inmates v. DiBuono, 713 F.2d 984, 999 (3d Cir. 1983) (in a challenge to jail overcrowding, court must consider not only cell size, but also other circumstances bearing on the nature of the shelter afforded inmates), cert. denied, sub nom. Union County Jail Inmates v. Fauver, 465 U.S. 1102, 104 S.Xt. 1600, 80 L. Ed. 2d 130, and sub. nom. DiBuono v. Fauver, 465 U.S. 1102, 104 S. Ct. 1600, 80 L. Ed. 2d 130 (1984); Gibson v. Lynch, 652 F.2d 348, 352 (3d Cir. 1981) ("none of the[ ] conditions, either singly or in combination, approached constitutional inadequacy"), cert. denied, sub nom. Stanley v. Zimmerman, 462 U.S. 1137, 77 L. Ed. 2d 1375, 103 S. Ct. 3123 (1983); accord Hassine v. Jeffes, 846 F.2d 169 (3d Cir. 1988).*fn6 We agree with the district court that the objective factors which a court must examine in prison conditions cases include "basic human needs such as food, shelter, and medical care, as well as sanitation, safety, the physical plant, educational/rehabilitational programs, the length of confinement, and out-of-cell time." Peterkin, 661 F. Supp. at 900. In Di Buono, we recognized the importance of such objective factors stating that in assessing "the totality of circumstances relevant to any alleged constitutional deficiency in shelter," id. at 1000, we must consider, in addition to the "general state of repair and function of the facilities provided," id. at 1001, the length of confinement in the prison, id. at 1000 (quoting Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678, 686, 57 L. Ed. 2d 522, 98 S. Ct. 2565 (1978)); how much time prisoners must spend in their cells each day, id. (citing Hoptowit v. Ray, 682 F.2d 1237, 1249 (9th Cir. 1982)); and "the opportunities for inmate activities outside of the cells." Id. These factors are as relevant to a challenge to the totality of the conditions of confinement as they are to a challenge focused on the size of the cells and overcrowding, as in Di Buono.*fn7

The prisoners question not these legal precepts but rather the district court's application of them in this case. Essentially, they argue that the district court failed to render a judgment based on objective indicia as mandated by the Supreme Court with regard to three interrelated aspects of confinement: cell conditions; time spent in the cells and prisoner activities and services; and the prisons' exercise policy. The gravamen of the prisoners' appeal is that the conditions of the cells are cruel and unusual when analyzed in relation to the daily regimen that the Commonwealth imposes on death-sentenced prisoners, which appellants characterize as one of excessive mental and physical idleness. The prisoners argue that the prison regime results in their psychological and physical deterioration and that it is without penological justification. Specifically, appellants contend that the district court erred in not concluding that confining death row prisoners to their cells for approximately twenty-two hours a day constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, in view of (1) the size and condition of the cells; (2) the restricted activities and services, including medical, psychological, religious, and legal services, which occupy the prisoners and sustain their mental health; and (3) the Commonwealth's exercise policy, which the prisoners contend deprives them of meaningful exercise for three reasons: the lack of any indoor exercise facilities for death sentenced prisoners; the practice of placing prisoners in individual, enclosed outdoor exercise yards; and the Commonwealth's ban on group exercise by capital inmates. The prisoners argue that the exercise policy, particularly the total deprivation of group recreation, when considered in conjunction with the extended time for which prisoners must remain in their cells and the all but total lack of opportunities to participate in remunerative prison work programs or other organized activity, denies prisoners on death row the meaningful intellectual stimulation and human interaction necessary to prevent their mental deterioration, and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the eighth amendment. We determine whether these claims, which implicate each of the Di Buono factors, state constitutional violations by a plenary review of the district court's extensive findings of fact and conclusions of law.

B. Findings by the District Court

1. Cell Conditions

At the time of the trial of this case, Pennsylvania incarcerated all of its prisoners under sentence of death in the State Correctional Institutions at Graterford and Huntingdon. Peterkin, 661 F. Supp. at 900. Both are maximum security prisons. Graterford's RHU, which the court found to be a fairly modern building, is a one-level, U-shaped structure separate from the prison's main building. Id. at 900. The district court found that it has a maximum capacity of thirty-six inmates; at the time of trial, twenty death-sentenced prisoners were held there. Id. at 901. One wing of the RHU houses death-sentenced prisoners; in the middle section are some inmates in disciplinary custody and some under a capital sentence; the third wing houses prisoners with psychiatric problems. Id. at 900. Because of Graterford's proximity to Farview State Hospital, Pennsylvania's only maximum security psychiatric hospital, the Commonwealth generally sends death-sentenced prisoners with "significant psychiatric histories" to Graterford. Id. at 901.

The State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon at the time of trial housed forty-two prisoners sentenced to death. Id. at 901. Its RHU is on "B" block, one cellblock of six that extend like spokes from the institution's center, each containing three vertically stacked levels of cells. Id. at 901. RHU cells, housing between 145 and 150 prisoners, are located in the center of "B" block, and there is an adjoining RHU annex housing ninety additional inmates. Inmates sentenced to death occupy the fifth and sixth tiers, which are the second and third levels of "B" block. Jt. App. at 330a.

The district court made numerous factual findings concerning every physical aspect of the prison cells in both prisons about which the class complained: size; temperature and ventilation; lighting; bedding; the adequacy of the furnishings; cell sanitation and maintenance, including the condition of the toilets, sinks, walls and ceilings, and the cleaning and inspection procedures; and the noise level in the RHU's. Peterkin, 661 F. Supp. at 903-910. The court found, inter alia, that "[t]he space available to each inmate is more than adequate," id. at 904;*fn8 that although there was a lack of significant airflow in the cells at Huntingdon and to a lesser extent at Graterford, there was no manifestation of the development and spread of infectious respiratory disease or any other risk to inmate health, id. at 905; that while more light might be preferable, the lighting in the cells is more than adequate and had not been the cause of any eye damage, id. at 906; that while some inmates remove their mattresses from the bedframes and place them on the floor, there is no evidence that this practice, or the bedframes when used, or the sanitation of the bedding supplies, had caused a single incident of serious back problems or the transmission of disease causing organisms," id. at 907; that the food served to the plaintiff-class is nutritionally adequate, id. at 922; and that the noise in the cells, while it may be irritating to some prisoners, cannot fairly be said to inflict cruel and unusual punishment. Id. at 910.

Notwithstanding its finding of constitutional adequacy, the district court did not commend the Commonwealth for the conditions of the death row cells and expressed concern at its apparent complacency with respect to certain problems. Peterkin, 661 F. Supp. at 909. The court found that the toilets at both institutions appear functional and generally in a state of good repair, but that "it is obvious that many are dirty, some are filthy. "Peterkin, 661 F. Supp. at 908. The condition of the sink facilities at Graterford "could be better," plaster walls at Huntingdon, the court found, warranted prompt repairs, and some cells "are in dire need of fresh paint." Id. At Graterford, the district court discovered lime deposits in the showers caused by lack of ventilation, which it found should be rectified. Id. at 915. About the level of sanitation and maintenance in general, the district court concluded that "[e]ven though the existing conditions do not inflict cruel and unusual punishment . . ., [w]ithout attention, these conditions could cross the threshold proscribed by the eighth amendment in the foreseeable future." Id. at 909.

Our review of the district court's findings and conclusions concerning physical conditions in the plaintiff-class's cells does not persuade us that the district court failed to base its holding that these do not constitute cruel and unusual punishment on objective indicia. Having inspected the RHU's, heard the testimony of prisoners, prison officials and experts, and consulted the standards of the American Correctional Association (ACA),*fn9 the district court weighed all the evidence and concluded, in each instance, that the condition in question withstood eighth amendment scrutiny. In each instance of the allegedly unconstitutional physical conditions the district court searched for a health risk and found none manifested. The district court did not find the conditions dangerous, see Riley v. Jeffes, 777 F.2d 143, 147 (3d Cir. 1985), intolerable, or shockingly substandard, see Inmates of Allegheny Co. Jail v. Pierce, 612 F.2d 754, 757 (3d Cir. 1979). We conclude that the physical conditions in the cells, as described by the district court, do not engender an "unqestioned and serious deprivation of basic human needs," Rhodes, 452 U.S. at not deprive inmates of "the 347, and in our view do not deprive inmates of "the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities." Id. "[T]he Constitution does not mandate comfortable prisons, and prisons . . . [that] house persons convicted of serious crimes, cannot be free of discomfort." Id. at 349.

We nevertheless view the district court's concerns regarding sanitation and maintenance as of the greatest significance. Sanitation is one of the basic human needs recognized by eighth amendment cases, see Union County Jail Inmates v. Di Buono, 713 F.2d at 998 n.19 (Citing Rhodes, 452 U.S. at 348). However, it appears to us that the Commonwealth on appeal encourages us to believe that the Commonwealth prison authorities do not view any of the district court's concerns with indifference. According to the Commonwealth and the district court there has been some amelioration of the cell conditions at Huntingdon: some cells are being painted, Jt. App. at 752a; the ventilation system is being repaired, id.; beds with slats too far apart for comfortable sleeping have been replaced with beds with a solid base, Peterkin, 661 F. Supp. at 907; a seat and desk unit for each cell is being distributed, although at the time of re-inspection all cells did not yet have one, id. at 917; fluorescent lighting has been installed throughout the RHU, id. at 906; ash trays are now being provided to reduce the risk of fire caused by cigarettes, Jt. App. at 742a, and food is now being served on thermal trays, Peterkin, 661 F. Supp. at 922, Jt. App. at 742a. By the time of the district court's final inspection of Graterford's RHU, a fan had been installed to ventilate the shower area. Id. at 915.*fn10

2. Cell Time and Prisoner Activities

Appellants argue that the Commonwealth's policy of confining death-sentenced prisoners to their cells for approximately twenty-two hours a day in a condition of imposed idleness and without adequate opportunity for human interaction violates the eighth amendment. There is no dispute about the facts of the Commonwealth's policies concerning cell time and prisoner activities. Death row prisoners are permitted to leave their cells infrequently, for circumscribed purposes: to shower, at Graterford on alternate days, at Huntingdon three times weekly, Peterkin, 661 F. Supp. at 915; at Huntingdon, once a month to make a telephone call*fn11, id. at 915; to appear, at their option, once a month for ten to thirty minutes before the Program Review Committee, id. at 915-16; to receive visitors, up to four at Graterford and five at Huntingdon, once a week from behind a glass divider in a supervised, locked visiting area, in addition to supplemental visits from religious advisors and attorneys, id. at 914. Group religious worship, communal meals, and visits to the law library are prohibited. Graterford inmates are assigned to perform janitorial tasks in the RHU for five hours a day for one month each year; this is the only participation in prison work programs allowed appellants, id. at 915. In the cells, self-teaching elementary educational materials are available, free of charge upon request, and prisoners who can afford them may purchase more advanced materials, id. at 917. The Commonwealth provides free postage for ten letters a month, id. at 916. Prisoners may obtain law library books upon individual request, through a paging system. Id. at 920-22.*fn12 The district court found that the prisoners have radios and televisions in their cells and that the prisoners converse with one another between cells. Id. at 917. Finally, the district court found that there are regular visits to the prisoners' cells by psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, and a medical doctor, and that it is possible to engage in a private conversation at the cell by speaking in lowered tones. Id. at 917-919.*fn13

Under Di Buono, we must consider, in addition to physical aspects of the cells, what effect, if any, the duration of appellants' confinement on death row will have on our analysis of the Commonwealth's policies regarding the time the prisoners must spend in their cells and the restrictions on their activities. The district court found that some of the prisoners had already been on death row for four years. The district court also observed, and we agree, that because of the deliberate pace of post-conviction review afforded death-sentenced prisoners, and political factors surrounding the decision to carry out an execution, the average length of confinement of death row prisoners will continue to increase. See Peterkin, 661 F. Supp. at 902-903; see also Groseclose v. Dutton, 609 F. Supp. 1432, 1447 (M.D. Tenn. 1985) (average death row inmate spends six to ten years pursuing appeals).*fn14 Thus, in assessing the constitutionality of the conditions under which death-sentenced prisoners are confined, relative brevity of confinement cannot be a factor. Cf. Smith v. Coughlin, 748 F.2d 783 (2d Cir. 1984).

Next, following the Di Buono factors, we must consider whether twenty-two hours of cell time daily is so excessive, relative to the physical conditions of the cells and the opportunities for activity outside the cells, that the confinement of capital inmates in this manner constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. We cannot say that it does. Under the conditions that on this record exist at Graterford and Huntingdon, we cannot find even the relatively long period of cell confinement imposed on appellants to violate the eighth amendment. We arrive at this conclusion through consideration of physical and non-physical conditions in the prisons.

With respect to physical conditions, we have previously observed that "[i]n those cases where federal courts have found unconstitutional prison conditions, a decaying physical plant allowed by disrepair to become virtually inoperable has almost always provided an important background element." Di Buono, 713 F.2d at 1001 n.30 (citing Ramos v. Lamm, 639 F.2d 559 (10th Cir. 1980); Battle v. Anderson, 564 F.2d 388 (10th Cir. 1977). Here, as in Di Buono, "there has been no finding that basic physical facilities such as plumbing, heating, ventilation, and showers, are inadequate." Id. The background element of a virtually inoperable physical plant is thus not present in the RHU's at Graterford and Huntingdon where death-sentenced prisoners are confined.

Turning to non-physical conditions, we understand appellants' arguments that they "are left to idle the years away in front of a television set," Appellants' Brief at 25, and that they are deprived of sufficient human interaction, to raise issues of mental, psychological, and emotional cruelty. We read the Rhodes Court as having stated that prison work and educational activities are rehabilitative in nature, and that a showing that they have been diminished, with nothing more, does not constitute an eighth amendment violation. The Court stated: "[L]imited work hours and delay before receiving education do not inflict pain . . .; deprivations of this kind simply are not punishments. We would have to wrench the Eighth Amendment from its language and history to hold that delay of these desirable aids to rehabilitation violates the Constitution." Rhodes, 452 U.S. at 348. We do not understand the Supreme Court's teaching to be that prison authorities may turn a blind eye to the mental and emotional state ...

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