Sept. 26, 2012 – Prison officials who kept a Wisconsin prisoner in restraints for five days while waiting for the security keys he swallowed to "pass naturally" are off the hook on allegations of unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.
Darren Gruenberg, an inmate at Waupun Correctional Institution, somehow snatched a set of prison keys from a guard and then swallowed them in 2006.
A prison doctor said the keys would pass naturally within five days. So prison officials kept him naked and restrained for five straight days waiting for the keys to emerge. He was allowed to take two 30-minute walks during each 12-hour period restrained in a bed or chair.
Nurses and other prison staff regularly checked on his condition. When a second X-ray revealed the keys were stuck in his abdomen, he was placed in an isolated cell where prison guards could monitor him. Ultimately, surgeons removed two keys. A third key passed naturally.
Gruenberg subsequently filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin against 25 staff members and prison officials, claiming violations of his right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants based on the doctrine of qualified immunity. In Gruenberg v. Gempeler et al., No. 10-3391 (Sept. 26, 2012), a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the district court ruling.
The panel explained that qualified immunity shields government officials from liability for discretionary actions unless clearly prohibited by statute or the constitution.
“Qualified immunity is intended to shield officials from liability when they exercise judgment when dealing with a difficult prisoner in a unique situation,” wrote Judge Daniel Manion for the three-judge appeals panel. “[T]here is no evidence that the defendants acted with deliberate indifference or recklessness towards Gruenberg’s health.”
The panel noted that all 25 defendants viewed the protocol developed to deal with Gruenberg’s unique situation to be reasonable under the circumstances, which undercut Gruenberg’s argument that a reasonable person should have known the conduct was unconstitutional.
However, the panel suggested that such treatment, under different circumstances, could rise to the level of cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.
“This was obviously a serious security problem, and was exacerbated by Gruenberg’s extensive history of misbehavior,” Judge Manion wrote. “However, in a different setting, with a less trouble prisoner, keeping a prisoner in near-constant restraints, in a cell under continual observation might constitute cruel and unusual punishment.”
The panel also rejected Gruenberg’s substantive and procedural due process claims, and upheld the district court’s decision to deny Gruenberg’s request for counsel.
Joe Forward is the legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin.