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Dent v. Dennison

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

December 20, 2017

CHARLES DENT, # N-42308, Plaintiff,
JEFFREY M. DENNISON Official Capacity, and JOHN BALDWIN Official Capacity, Defendants.



         Plaintiff, currently incarcerated at Shawnee Correctional Center (“Shawnee”), has brought this pro se civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff claims that Defendants have knowingly housed him in unsanitary and unhealthy living conditions at Shawnee, and have failed to mitigate those conditions. Along with the Complaint, Plaintiff has filed a motion seeking a temporary restraining order (“TRO”) and preliminary injunction. (Doc. 3). This case is now before the Court for a preliminary review of the Complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A.

         Under § 1915A, the Court is required to screen prisoner complaints to filter out non-meritorious claims. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The Court must dismiss any portion of the Complaint that is legally frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or asks for money damages from a defendant who by law is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b).

         An action or claim is frivolous if “it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact.” Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989). Frivolousness is an objective standard that refers to a claim that “no reasonable person could suppose to have any merit.” Lee v. Clinton, 209 F.3d 1025, 1026-27 (7th Cir. 2000). An action fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted if it does not plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). The claim of entitlement to relief must cross “the line between possibility and plausibility.” Id. at 557. Conversely, a complaint is plausible on its face “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Although the Court is obligated to accept factual allegations as true, see Smith v. Peters, 631 F.3d 418, 419 (7th Cir. 2011), some factual allegations may be so sketchy or implausible that they fail to provide sufficient notice of a plaintiff's claim. Brooks v. Ross, 578 F.3d 574, 581 (7th Cir. 2009). Additionally, Courts “should not accept as adequate abstract recitations of the elements of a cause of action or conclusory legal statements.” Id. At the same time, however, the factual allegations of a pro se complaint are to be liberally construed. See Arnett v. Webster, 658 F.3d 742, 751 (7th Cir. 2011); Rodriguez v. Plymouth Ambulance Serv., 577 F.3d 816, 821 (7th Cir. 2009).

         Applying these standards, the Court finds that some of Plaintiff's claims survive threshold review under § 1915A.

         The Complaint

         On May 10, 2016, Baldwin (Director of the Illinois Department of Corrections - “IDOC”) ordered Plaintiff transferred from the Big Muddy River Correctional Center to Shawnee. This was an emergency transfer prompted by an external investigation against a correctional officer at Big Muddy. (Doc. 1, p. 2). Plaintiff has been held at Shawnee in 8 different cells during the course of his confinement there. Each cell had serious deficiencies which were not remedied by corrections officers or by the Defendants, despite Plaintiff's requests, grievances, and letters. Plaintiff states he has been incarcerated for 34 years, and has never before been held in such inhumane conditions as he has endured over the past year and a half at Shawnee.

         In each of the cells, the ventilation vents were clogged with rust and dust, preventing fresh air from entering the room. Floor tiles, allegedly composed of asbestos, were loose and/or broken, posing a health hazard from friable asbestos fibers. (Doc. 1, p. 10). Windows were broken in several of the cells, exposing Plaintiff to rain in the summer, cold air in the winter, and vermin. The cloth mattresses were contaminated with feces, urine, and rust, and smelled bad. (Doc. 1, pp. 2-4, 9, ). No mattress cover was provided, and Plaintiff was given stained and torn sheets. (Doc. 1, pp. 2-4). The prison has had an outbreak of scabies, staph infections, and bed bugs due to the unsanitary conditions. (Doc. 1, pp. 8, 14). Plumbing problems were common, including an inoperable cold water tap (Doc. 1, p. 3), a sink that shot out hot and cold water (Doc. 1, p. 9), and toilets that would not properly flush (Doc. 1, pp. 4, 9, 12-13). The showers were contaminated with mold and dirt, provided cold water which only rarely warmed up, and also had vents clogged with dust and rust. (Doc. 1, pp. 9, 13, 15, 20).

         Plaintiff was fortunate to have funds to purchase new sheets and a pillow, to replace the torn and stained sheets he was issued upon his arrival. However, he was also charged a fee for the torn sheets, because he was wrongly blamed for having damaged them. (Doc. 1, pp. 6, 8). The prison-issued clothing was also worn out and inadequate. (Doc. 1, p. 7).

         In May 2016, in Cell 4-D-21, Plaintiff had to stay in his cell for 6 days without a working toilet. (Doc. 1, p. 9). The smell of human waste was not contained by the plastic bag he was given to cover the toilet bowl.

         On July 8, 2016, Plaintiff was moved to Cell 4-D-77. (Doc. 1, p. 11). In addition to the clogged vents, contaminated mattresses, and broken floor tiles, the light fixture cover was broken, with dangling pieces of rusty metal that could be made into a weapon. Plaintiff reported the conditions to an officer, but was told not to be concerned because “the entire prison is falling apart.” (Doc. 1, p. 11).

         In October 2016, Plaintiff was placed in Cell 1-D-17, where he stayed for 4 months. This cell had all the problems listed above, and in addition, had an inoperable window which could not be closed. (Doc. 1, p. 12). The screen had been intentionally cut by prison officials to allow an inmate to reach through and pull the window up. Cold air came in through the window, and there was no heat. After about a month, a maintenance worker screwed the window shut and covered it with a plastic bag, but cold air still came in. (Doc. 1, p. 13). In late November, the heat was turned on, and then the cell became oppressively hot, dry, and stuffy because of the clogged vents.

         On January 31, 2017, Plaintiff was moved to cell 4-A-25, where he stayed for 4 days. (Doc. 1, p. 14). He was then moved to Cell 4-A-53 on February 6, 2017. (Doc. 1, p. 15). In both cells, the mattresses were moldy, smelled of urine, and contaminated with rust. Vents were clogged, floor tiles were loose or missing, and light covers were broken. The 4-House cell windows were functional, but the showers were dirty and moldy. (Doc. 1, p. 15).

         In June 2017, Plaintiff was moved to Cell 3-C-53, where he still remains as of the time he filed this suit. (Doc. 1, p. 15). The floor tiles are intact and the mattresses are in good shape. However, this cell has a broken window knob and a hole in the screen. (Doc. 1, p. 15-16). During September and October 2017, freezing air came in through the broken window. On October 31, 2017, when the weather happened to be warm, the window was sealed shut by maintenance workers and the heat was turned on. (Doc. 1, pp. 17-18). As in the previous winter, Plaintiff's cell is now unbearably hot and stuffy because of the sealed window and clogged vent. Plaintiff alleges that after funds ran out to replace windows, Dennison and Baldwin ordered prison workers to cut the screens on the broken windows throughout the facility to allow the windows to be opened in summer, and likewise ordered those broken windows to be fastened shut during winter, cutting off fresh air to the affected cells. (Doc. 1, pp. 18-19). Plaintiff suffers frequent nosebleeds because of the dry air, which aggravates his migraine headaches. (Doc. 1, pp. 18-19, 29).

         Additionally, the door access button is broken in Plaintiff's current cell. This means that when officers in the control center activate the door access to allow prisoners out for meals, dayroom, yard, gym, or any other activity, Plaintiff is unable to use his button to exit the cell like all the other inmates on his wing. The only way Plaintiff can get out of his cell is by persuading another prisoner to alert an officer to let him out. Often, Plaintiff has not been let out until 30 minutes or an hour had passed. Plaintiff asked for the button to be repaired, but officers told him that “maintenance does not fix anything around here.” (Doc. 1, p. 16). Consequently, over the last 6 months, Plaintiff has missed many meals, as well as recreation, showers, telephone, chapel, and other activities which the other prisoners routinely access. (Doc. 1, pp. 16-17, 21). These deprivations have affected his mental and physical health, and the time he has been forced to stay in the cell rather than engage in out-of-cell activity has increased his exposure to the stale, hot, and dry air in the cell.

         Plaintiff has notified Defendants of the broken door button and other problems, but they have failed to take any steps to correct the conditions so that Plaintiff's regular access to meals, exercise, showers, and other privileges may be restored. (Doc. 1, pp. 22, 34-42). Recently, other inmates have been attempting to extort money from Plaintiff in exchange for informing officers that Plaintiff needs to be let out of his cell. (Doc. 1, p. 28-29).

         Plaintiff also complains that the cellhouse is infested with spiders, insects, mice, and bats; he deals with spider bites and mice on a daily basis. (Doc. 1, pp. 20, 29). The showers are moldy and dirty. The laundry room where Plaintiff must take his soiled clothes and linens twice a week is constantly flooded with sewage water due to backed up plumbing. Id. Food is undercooked and contaminated. (Doc. 1, pp. 20-21). He has been exposed to scabies, bed bugs, and other diseases from the 8 different soiled mattresses in his various cells. (Doc. 1, p. 21). The sinks by the dayroom toilets do not work, so inmates cannot clean their hands after using the toilet, and hand sanitizer dispensers are never filled. Those inmates then go on to use the telephones, kiosk machines, and doorknobs in the dayroom, spreading germs. (Doc. 1, p. 23). Power outages are frequent, during which the cell locks may be opened by inmates, creating a security threat. (Doc. 1, p. 24). Plaintiff perceives this issue as a particular threat to him, because he is classified as a vulnerable inmate due to being openly gay and having been assaulted in the past. (Doc. 1, p 25). Finally, he complains that the law library is inadequately staffed. (Doc. 1, pp. 26-27).

         Plaintiff has informed both Defendants of the allegedly unconstitutional conditions at Shawnee, including the denial of access to meals, recreation, etc., because of the broken cell door access button. He filed emergency grievances to Dennison in October and November 2017, which detailed the problems with his current cell. (Doc. 1, pp. 39-42). Dennison, however, deemed these not to be emergency matters. (Doc. 1, p. 27). Plaintiff wrote a detailed letter to Baldwin complaining about these issues as well. (Doc. 1, pp. 5, 27, 34-38). However, neither Defendant has taken any action to remedy the unhealthy conditions or the broken door access button. (Doc. 1, pp. 5-6, 27-28).

         Plaintiff sues both Warden Dennison and Director Baldwin in their official capacities only. (Doc. 1, pp. 1, 5). He seeks compensatory and punitive damages, and injunctive relief in the form of an order to immediately repair the dangerous conditions at Shawnee, and to transfer Plaintiff to a prison of his choice. (Doc. 1, pp. 29-30).

         Merits Review Pursuant to 28 ...

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