Eleventh Circuit Determines Department of Corrections Officials Protected by Qualified Immunity Following Prison Hunger Strike

In Jackson v. Warden Humphrey, et al., No. 14-10183 (Jan. 13, 2015), the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling that the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity for their actions following the end of a prison hunger strike. Before the Eleventh Circuit was Mrs. Jackson’s civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Jackson alleged that in retaliation for her public protests against the prison conditions, the defendants terminated her visitation privileges with her inmate husband. The Eleventh Circuit held that the defendants were entitled to the protections of qualified immunity for their decision to terminate Mrs. Jackson’s visitation privileges both during and after the hunger strike based on Supreme Court and 11th Circuit precedent.

In June 2012, Miguel Jackson, Mrs. Jackson’s husband, was confined to the maximum security Special Management Unit (“SMU”) of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison. The defendants, prison warden Carl Humphrey, director of facilities Randy Tillman, and assistant commissioner Timothy Ward, were all employees of the Georgia Department of Corrections.

On June 10, 2012, Mr. Jackson began a hunger strike joined by five other inmates. Warden Humphrey became concerned for the inmates’ health and safety and on June 13, 2012 instructed staff to medically monitor the striking inmates. On June 22, 2012, Mr. Jackson and one other inmate refused the monitoring.

Over the weekend of June 23rd, 2012, Mrs. Jackson visited her husband. As the hunger strike reached its third week, and as inmates continued to refuse monitoring, Warden Humphrey grew more concerned for their health and safety as well as the threat that the strike would spread to other parts of the prison. The SMU would not be able to provide adequate security and medical assistance should the strike spread. Thus, Warden Humphrey suspended all visitation privileges for those inmates involved in the strike, excluding attorney visits.

By June 28, 2012, the defendants became aware of a rally planned for the next day as well as rumors that the hunger strike was going to spread throughout the SMU and to Macon State and Augusta State Prisons. Mrs. Jackson led the rally on June 29, 2012 on the steps of the Georgia State Capitol to raise awareness of the poor prison conditions in the SMU.

By July 5, 2012, the total members of the hunger strike had grown to eleven inmates. On July 6, 2012, Warden Humphrey met individually with each inmate, and every one of them accepted a sack lunch by the end of the meeting, including Mr. Jackson. Thus, Warden Humphrey believed the strike had ended and restored visitation privileges. However, over the weekend of July 7th, 2012, Mrs. Jackson again visited her husband and on the following day eight inmates, including Mr. Jackson, renewed the hunger strike. Warden Humphrey again suspended visitation privileges for these inmates. On the same day, Mrs. Jackson spoke again at the State Capitol, as well as later at a protest at the Department of Correction’s headquarters.

On July 12, 2012, the defendants received information alleging that Mrs. Jackson had incited Mr. Jackson during her last visit to renew the hunger strike for another ten days until the Governor and Commissioner had given written guarantees about changing prison conditions. On July 19, 2012, although all visitation had already been suspended, the defendants revoked Mr. Jackson’s visitation privileges with his wife. On July 26, 2012, Mr. Jackson ended the hunger strike, and the defendants restored his visitation privileges except for those with his wife.

Mrs. Jackson later filed this § 1983 action in the USDC Middle District of Georgia. The district court granted the defendants qualified immunity during the hunger strike but held that the protection did not apply once the strike had ended. The defendants filed for interlocutory appeal.

The Eleventh Circuit first rejected Mrs. Jackson’s attempts to contest the district court’s qualified immunity ruling during the hunger strike without having filed a cross-appeal. Based on the cross-appeal rule, Mrs. Jackson could not contest the ruling in the absence of a filed cross-appeal if doing so would, as it would here, “enlarge her rights and lessen those of the” defendants. Jackson at 15.

The Eleventh Circuit then affirmed the district court’s ruling that the Defendants’ decision to terminate Mrs. Jackson’s visitation privileges during the hunger strike was entitled to qualified immunity. The Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling to the extent that it did not grant qualified immunity for the period after the hunger strike had ended. Supreme Court and 11th Circuit precedent provided that entitlement to qualified immunity was to be based on the law and facts “present at the time the public officials ma[de] their decisions and does not take into account later facts or changes in the law.” Id. at 19. Here, because the defendants made a single decision to terminate Mrs. Jackson’s visitation privileges, and because such decision—made during the hunger strike—was lawfully made, the defendants would be entitled to qualified immunity despite later facts (the ending of the hunger strike) or changes in the law.

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