Prisoners’ Rights Prevails on Appeal in Jail Conditions Case

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned the decision of a lower federal court terminating a 2001 court order governing sanitation in the New York City jails. The decision was issued in Benjamin v. Horn, the Prisoners’ Rights Project’s class action concerning living conditions in the jail system.

The lower court had held there was no longer a “continuing and ongoing” violation of federal law, as required to keep a federal court prison conditions injunction in place. PRP had relied upon a report by an expert sanitarian, who had found continuing unsanitary conditions including clogged ventilation grilles, black mold growths, vermin infestation in some areas, and simple failure to clean adequately, especially in bathroom and shower areas. The sanitation problems were aggravated by the lack of maintenance and the deteriorated condition of the facilities, which resulted in damaged surfaces that are impossible to clean. The lower court discounted this report and other observations by the court monitor’s staff on the ground that they were less current and the inspections less frequent than those of the jails’ own staff, even though PRP showed that when the jail inspectors looked at the same areas around the same time, they routinely failed to report unsanitary conditions documented by the court monitor’s expert and staff.

The appellate court held that PRP had been allowed insufficient opportunity to challenge the defendants’ claims in light of the discounting of the court monitor’s evidence. The case will now be returned to the lower court so PRP staff will have the chance to make their case about sanitation conditions.