Maine Prison, Warden Not Liable for Padlock Beatings - U.S. First Circuit
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Maine Prison, Warden Not Liable for Padlock Beatings

Slocking. It's nothing new. Rappers Kool G and Tupac referenced padlocks in socks years ago. And if softcore adult films on Netflix are your cultural reference points of choice, [spoiler alert] Red got slocked by Vee in the penultimate episode of the second season of "Orange is the New Black."

Take a prison-issued padlock. Put it in a sock. Beat your fellow prisoners. It's ingenious and not altogether unheard of. And that's these two prisoners' point: Why are prisons still handing out padlocks? The two slocking victims argue that ignoring the obvious problem is tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment.

Where There's a Will, There's a Way

Former Warden Patricia Barnhart (since fired) excused away the Maine State Prison's policy of not taking away padlocks for any reason by noting that the inmates are "in a prison where if they want to find a weapon, they will find a weapon."

That money quote, along with numerous references by retired Justice David Souter (sitting by designation) to the increase in prisoner-on-prisoner assaults beginning when Barnhart took office, hints that the panel didn't look to favorably upon her policies.

That being said, neither she nor the prison were held liable here. Why not?

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We're Going to Need More Beatings

The U.S. Supreme Court held in Farmer v. Brennan that under the Eighth Amendment, "prison officials have a duty to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners," and "[h]aving incarcerated persons with demonstrated proclivities for antisocial criminal, and often violent, conduct, having stripped them of virtually every means of self-protection and foreclosed their access to outside aid, the government and its officials are not free to let the state of nature take its course."

But a plaintiff still needs the numbers to show that the problem was foreseeable.

And here, there were no numbers -- both plaintiffs got slocked, but the instances of reported padlock beatings were few and far between.

There were no reported padlock assaults in 2007, two in 2008, two in 2009, six in 2010, one in 2011, and one in 2012. And because their complaint specifically addresses padlock beatings and the prison's failure to take away these locks -- and doesn't address the spike in overall inmate-on-inmate assaults during Barnhart's tenure -- only the slockings are at issue here.

And with only a handful of known slockings, there simply isn't any evidence of a true problem, the First Circuit held.

"To be clear, we do not suggest that there is some freestanding, numerical threshold (ex ante or ex post) for the level of violence among inmates that is necessary for its risk to be considered 'substantial' under Farmer," Justice Souter concluded. (Farmer, in fact, involved an outwardly female transgender individual who was placed in general population -- a novel, yet obvious problem.)

Souter continued: "But not every risk carries an inherent threat at a substantial level, or of severity beyond the norms, and here the only record evidence Lakin and Landry offer to suggest that the risk of padlock assaults was 'substantial' is the relatively low frequency with which they occurred at the Prison during the period leading up to the assaults they suffered."

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