The 7th Circuit recently ruled in favor of detainees who claim the Lake County Sheriff failed to provide enough water to support sanitary conditions at the jail during a 3-day water shutdown. The court found qualified immunity would not protect officials against claims that they failed to provide adequate drinking water and flushable toilets for detainees.
The idea of making do with five bottles of water to cover an entire day’s worth of hydration and cleanliness seems almost too ridiculous to believe. However, pretrial detainees of the Lake County Adult Correctional Facility in Waukegan, Illinois, say that’s what officials forced them to do when the water at the facility was shut off for repairs in November 2017. The 740 inmates could only flush toilets during the day, leading to severe clogs and foul odors throughout the jail. Jail staff reportedly refused requests for more water, and detainees who repeatedly asked for additional water ended up in lockdown.
Qualified immunity rests on two questions: Was the constitutional right claimed by the plaintiffs clearly established at the time of the act? If so, did the defendant’s actions clearly violate that right? In this case, since the inmates awaited trial, their 14th Amendment rights were at issue rather than freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.
A federal judge found, and the 7th Circuit affirmed, that qualified immunity was inappropriate in this case because the failure to provide sanitary conditions of confinement has long been seen as a constitutional violation. The defendants argued that the three-day water shutdown presented a new question to the court, but the 7th Circuit disagreed, saying “all but the most plainly incompetent jail officials would be aware” that this type of failure was unconstitutional.
One could understand a miscalculation, the court said, but that’s not what happened here. According to the detainees, even after officials learned of the poor conditions, they failed to rectify them.