On July 8, 1985, prisoners filed a class action suit seeking relief from living conditions alleged to be unconstitutional at 49 minimum and medium security prisons in North Carolina that utilized dormitory-style housing where prisoners slept on bunks in large rooms. The inmates were represented by North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services and private counsel.
On December 28, 1988, a settlement agreement was reached. Provisions aimed at improving prison conditions included the requirement that the state provide 50 square feet of living space per inmate in each dormitory by July 1, 1994. The 50 square feet of living space per inmate was referred to as "standard operating capacity" (SOC). The agreement also required the state to replace all triple bunks with double bunks and to implement direct supervision by correctional officers in the dormitories. Other provisions dealt with peer review of medical care, visitation policies, work and study programs, fire safety, new dormitory design, ventilation renovations, medical diets, plumbing repairs, clothing and linen policies, and locker space. A settlement committee, composed of representatives of the Governor, the General Assembly, and the Department of Correction, was created to implement the settlement agreement. On April 3, 1989, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina approved the settlement agreement, and it assumed the force of a consent decree.
The state's efforts to comply with the terms of the consent decree were frustrated by unexpected increases in prison admissions. Prison admissions increased from a level of 17,000 admissions per year in 1988 to almost 31,000 per year by 1992. Therefore, on October 13, 1993, the state petitioned to modify the consent decree because it was unable to meet the requirement of 50 square feet of living space per inmate. On January 7, 1994, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina (Magistrate Judge Alexander B. Denson) granted the plaintiffs' motion to compel the production of documents which had been provided to the settlement committee in order to rebut the state's claim that drastic unanticipated increases in prison admission rates necessitated modification of the consent decree. Small v. Hunt, 152 F.R.D. 509 (E.D.N.C. 1994). Magistrate Judge Denson also held that by filing a petition to modify the consent decree, the state waived any attorney-client privilege that may have protected the deliberations of the settlement committee, and documents related to the deliberations of the settlement committee were not protected by legislative immunity.
The District Court (Judge William Earl Britt) on June 28, 1994, granted the requested modification of the decree to allow certain dormitories to operate at 125 percent of SOC. Small v. Hunt, 858 F.Supp. 510 (E.D.N.C. 1994). On July 13, 1994, the state moved to alter the recently issued modification order. The district court, in an order dated March 27, 1995, granted the state's request by allowing the state to house inmates in certain dormitories at 130 percent of SOC. Dormitories operating above 100 percent of capacity were required to provide at least 32 inches of space between bunks and were prohibited from having a center row of bunks.
On October 16, 1996, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (Judge M. Blane Michael) held that increases in prison admissions and related unanticipated expenses justified the changes in the consent decree and affirmed the District Court's modification. Small v. Hunt, 98 F.3d 789 (4th Cir. 1996).Tom Madison - 10/08/2006