Prisoner Who Swallowed Security Keys Loses Eighth Amendment Appeal
By org jforward wisbar Joe Forward, Legal Writer,
State Bar of Wisconsin
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
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.
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
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
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.