Wilkinson v. Austin

545 U.S. 209 (2005)


Ohio opened a Supermax facility, which has the capacity to house up to 504 inmates in single-inmate cells and is designed to '`separate the most predatory and dangerous prisoners from the rest of the . . . general [prison] population.'' The conditions more restrictive than any other form of incarceration in Ohio, including conditions on its death row or in its administrative control units. Inmates must remain in their cells, which measure 7 by 14 feet, for 23 hours per day. A light remains on in the cell at all times, though it is sometimes dimmed, and an inmate who attempts to shield the light to sleep is subject to further discipline. During the one hour per day that an inmate may leave his cell, access is limited to one of two indoor recreation cells. Cells prevent conversation or communication with other inmates. All meals are taken alone in the inmate's cell instead of in a common eating area. Opportunities for visitation are rare and in all events, are conducted through glass walls. Inmates are deprived of almost any environmental or sensory stimuli and almost all human contact. Inmates otherwise eligible for parole lose their eligibility while incarcerated at Supermax. Level 5 inmates are placed in Supermax, and levels 1 through 4 inmates are placed at lower security facilities throughout the State. When first opened, no official policy governing placement was in effect. Ohio issued policy 111-07, which was modified in early 2002. A classification review can occur either (1) upon entry into the prison system if the inmate was convicted of certain offenses, e. g., organized crime, or (2) during the term of incarceration if an inmate engages in specified conduct, e. g., leads a prison gang. A three-page form details matters such as the inmate's recent violence, escape attempts, gang affiliation, underlying offense, and other pertinent details. A Classification Committee convenes to review the proposed classification and to hold a hearing. At least 48 hours before the hearing, the inmate is provided with written notice summarizing the conduct or offense triggering the review. The inmate also has access to the Long Form, which details why the review was initiated. The inmate may attend the hearing, may 'offer any pertinent information, explanation and/or objections to placement,' and may submit a written statement. He may not call witnesses. If the Committee does recommend placement, it documents the decision on a 'Classification Committee Report' setting forth 'the nature of the threat the inmate presents and the committee's reasons for the recommendation,' as well as a summary of any information presented at the hearing, The CCR is sent to the warden of the prison and if he indicates his approval on the CCR, provides his reasons, and forwards the annotated CCR to the Bureau of Classification (Bureau) for a final decision. The annotated CCR is served upon the inmate, notifying him of the Committee's and warden's recommendations and reasons. The inmate has 15 days to file any objections with the Bureau. If the Bureau approves the warden's recommendation, the inmate is transferred. The Bureau's chief notes the reasons for the decision on the CCR, and the CCR is again provided to the inmate. Inmates assigned receive another review within 30 days of their arrival. If the staff member deems the inmate inappropriately placed, he prepares a written recommendation to the warden that the inmate be transferred to a lower security institution. If the warden concurs, he forwards that transfer recommendation to the Bureau for appropriate action. Placement is reviewed on at least an annual basis according to the initial three-tier classification review process outlined above. A class of current and former inmates, Austin (Ps), brought suit under § 1983. They claimed a violation of due process and the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments. Ps suit sought declaratory and injunctive relief. On the eve of trial, D promulgated its New Policy and represented that it contained the procedures to be followed in the future. The court found that Ds had denied the inmates due process by failing to afford a large number of them notice and an adequate opportunity to be heard before transfer; failing to give inmates sufficient notice of the grounds serving as the basis for their retention; and failing to give the inmates sufficient opportunity to understand the reasoning and evidence used to retain them. It directed extensive modifications to that policy. D was ordered to provide the inmates with an exhaustive list of grounds, and a summary of all evidence and matters not so identified could not be considered by the Committee. Ps were to be afforded an opportunity to appear before the Committee and to make an oral or written statement, to present documentary evidence and call witnesses before the Committee, provided that doing so would not be unduly hazardous or burdensome. The court ordered the Committee to summarize all evidence supporting its recommendation to include 'facts relied upon and reasoning used.' The statement shall 'not use conclusory,' 'vague,' or 'boilerplate language,' and must be delivered to the inmate within five days. The court ordered Ds to notify the inmate twice per year both in writing and orally of his progress toward a security level reduction. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the District Court's conclusion that the inmates had a liberty interest in avoiding placement and affirmed the District Court's procedural modifications in their entirety. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.