We have very few documents from this long-lived case: no docket, and none of the documents prior to 1997. The procedural and factual description below is nearly verbatim from the filings of the United States in 1997.
This case was brought in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, in 1977, as a class action by inmates in the Jefferson County Jails, in Birmingham and Bessemer Alabama, alleging unconstitutional conditions of confinement. The class was certified in 1978. The defendants included county and state officials with responsibilities for conditions at the jail, and for transferring sentenced inmates from the jail to the state's facilities. The United States sought and was granted permission to appear as amicus curiae, with rights to file briefs, argue, "examine witnesses called or deposed by the parties, and generally assist the parties, as it may choose, in the preparation for and conduct of the trial." Order of December 1, 1977. (The U.S. had attempted to litigate the conditions of confinement at all the jails in Alabama in a separate case, Adams v. Mathis -- JC-AL-0002
in this Clearinghouse, but Judge Frank Johnson, then of the Middle District of Alabama, had declined to allow that case to be made so broad. The U.S.'s involvement in this case, which dealt with the largest jail in Alabama, seems to have been the U.S.'s response to Judge Johnson's decision.)
In 1978, all of the parties (including the State defendants), and also amicus United States, entered into a stipulation of facts. The stipulation described conditions at the jails. It stated that on a recent date, 370 of 675 inmates held in the jails were ready for transfer to the state prison system, and that this figure was representative of typical conditions. The stipulation also set out certain minimum "reasonable and necessary health standards," including light and ventilation at stated levels, running water, flush toilets, and fire safety plans. It stated, further, that "a jail is not an appropriate place for the long-term incarceration of a person who is mentally retarded or who is psychologically disturbed . . . . The housing of such persons in a jail also represents a threat to the safety of other prisoners." As for remedy, the parties attached a proposed injunction, but did not agree to its imposition. Instead, they stipulated: "The form of injunction attached hereto has been examined by the parties. While the injunction is not agreed to by each party, it is consistent with the facts agreed to herein and with prior decisions of, this Court in similar cases. Each party hereto reserves the right to appeal."
The proposed injunction included provisions relating to population levels, outdoor recreation, light, ventilation, plumbing, fire safety, transfer of inmates with mental illness or mental retardation, direct supervision of inmates, medical records, and dispensing of prescription drugs. The provisions on population are particularly relevant in the current proceeding. First, the proposed injunction set a limit on the number of inmates who could be housed at the Jails, specifying the number of inmates appropriately housed in each existing type of cell, and the number of square feet of living space required for each inmate. Second, the proposed injunction provided that if the County defendants were housing more prisoners in each cell than the preceding paragraph permitted, "the County Defendants shall notify the Board of Corrections which shall take the excess into the penal system or transfer them under the provisions of Ala. Code. § 14-6-87 et seq.
The Court entered an injunction substantially similar to that submitted with the stipulation, on Aug. 28, 1978. There was no appeal.
The injunction was modified slightly several months after entry, and there were numerous rounds of contempt motions, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, each related to the population provisions set out above. The State and County defendants were at various points found in contempt. In the course of deciding the contempt motions, this Court discussed its 1978 order, explaining that the injunction had been "designed to correct unconstitutional conditions at the jails." Order of October 22, 1981. The Court explained that "pursuant to a stipulation of facts with suggested decree, the court on August 28, 1978, found that conditions in both jails were unconstitutional and directed that in one year the populations be reduced to constitutional limits." The Court continued by "not[ing] that the court's determinations as to the maximum permissible population levels at the . . . jails were made by taking into account the totality of conditions at those jails, the approach that has subsequently been approved by the Supreme Court in Rhodes v. Chapman [452 U.S. 337] (1981)."
After finding the State and County defendants in contempt in 1980 and again in 1981, and giving them an opportunity to purge the contempt, the Court imposed a fine of several hundred thousand dollars (some of which was remitted to the defendants after they remedied the contempt in 1982). The next significant proceedings were in 1991, and were started by the Sheriff and the County defendants in response to a notice received from the State that the Board of Corrections intended to greatly reduce the rate at which it removed state-ready ready prisoners from the jails. By motion, the Sheriff and the County defendants asked the Court to modify the injunction to clarify that it required the State to remove state-ready prisoners promptly. In response, the Court entered an order modifying its injunction and requiring the State defendants to remove prisoners within seven days of their becoming state-ready. Order of May 20, 1991.
In July 1997, pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act, the State defendants sought to terminate all relief in the case, but focused especially on the 1991 order. In response to this filing the plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of the PLRA. The County defendants and the Sheriff also opposed the motion to terminate by arguing that the challenged relief is ineligible for termination because the requisite findings regarding liability
and appropriate remedial scope were made in support of entry of the order, and because the challenged relief remained necessary under current conditions. The County defendants and the Sheriff did not seek to terminate those parts of the injunction that apply to them.
A hearing was held on August 6, 1997, at which the state argued for termination, and the plaintiffs argued that the Prison Litigation Reform Act was unconstitutional. The United States presented evidence that the injunction in question remained appropriate under the PLRA, because it was necessary to prevent on ongoing violation of prisoners' rights. Judge Sam Pointer agreed, ruling orally from the bench. The injunction therefore remained in place.
According to news reports, the state renewed its motion about a year later; after substantial efforts were made to reduce jail population by speeding criminal court processing, in 1999, Judge Pointer granted the motion and terminated the decree. See Vickii Howell, Spectre of New Jail Rises Again for JeffCo, Birmingham News (Feb. 20, 1999).Margo Schlanger - 06/08/2014