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MARSH v. BARRY

December 23, 1988

DONYELL A. MARSH, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
MARION S. BARRY, et al., Defendants. RICKY BROGSDALE, et al., Plaintiffs, v. MARION S. BARRY, et al., Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: GREENE

 The federal courts in this jurisdiction have had to deal for some time now with litigation of various kinds regarding conditions in the District of Columbia's correctional institutions. Much of that litigation has revolved around overcrowding and the conditions that accompany overcrowded institutions. In spite of an alarming rise in serious crime, increasing terms of imprisonment mandated legislatively or imposed judicially, more energetic police work, and a judicial and prosecutorial system working at greater speed -- all of which made it obvious that increasing numbers of criminals would be incarcerated -- little was done to provide the necessary confinement space, not even in response to repeated court decrees. As a consequence, overcrowding has become constantly worse, to the point where now District of Columbia convicts are being shipped thousands of miles away to state institutions the adequacy of which no one can assess.

 This multifaceted problem is now assuming a new dimension. As described below, the overcrowded conditions at the D.C. Jail caused a riot and a fire to break out at that institution. This Opinion considers the question whether inmates who claim to have been injured as a result of these calamities may sue the District government as well as its mayor, its chief of corrections, and other policymakers in their official and their personal capacities for damages under the civil rights laws.

 I

 Background

 On July 22, 1983, a fire was started by several inmates in the Southwest housing unit of the District of Columbia Detention Center (hereinafter referred to as the D.C. Jail or the jail). Although the inmates were eventually evacuated from the unit, a number of them were injured in the course of the fire and the panic that ensued. Seventeen inmates brought this action against the District of Columbia government and a number of its officials and employees pursuant to various civil rights statutes, 42 U.S.C. ยงยง 1983, 1985, and 1986. *fn1"

 On June 4, 1986, this Court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. On the independent activities claim, the Court held that the actions taken by the correctional officials during and after the fire were reasonable under the circumstances. With respect to the overcrowding issue, the Court held that, although the jail was illegally overcrowded, plaintiffs could not establish as a matter of law that their injuries were caused by that overcrowding. This was so, in the view of this Court, because those responsible for the overcrowding could not reasonably be charged with foreseeing the fire, inasmuch as a fire set by inmates to their own institution is a self-destructive intervening criminal act which could not be foreseen and which breaks the chain of causation between the original tort and the injuries.

 On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed this Court's decision as to the acts of correctional officials during and after the fire. However, that court reversed and remanded on the question whether the injuries were proximately caused by the overcrowding. In this regard, the appellate court relied heavily upon the testimony of George Holland, Assistant Director of the Department of Corrections, who had stated during the Campbell contempt hearings supra note 1, that he expected rioting to occur at the jail because of the overcrowded conditions. *fn3" Reasoning that, since such rioting had actually been foreseen, it could certainly be concluded that it was foreseeable.

 The significance of that appellate determination is plain: if the rioting was foreseeable, those in control of the institution should have taken steps to avoid that hazard, and the chain of causation between the original illegal overcrowding of the prison and the riot that ultimately occurred was not broken despite the activities of the inmates themselves. *fn4"

 With respect to the fire, the Court of Appeals contemplated an additional step: this Court is to determine whether the fire was part of the riot (as distinguished from being an isolated criminal act). If the answer to that question is found to be in the affirmative, then the fire would likewise have to be regarded as foreseeable. *fn5"

 Finally, the Court of Appeals decision requires this Court to determine whether the general disturbance, including both the riot and the fire, "was directly or indirectly caused by the illegal overcrowding at the Jail." 824 F.2d 1139.

 II

 Motion to Dismiss As To The Correctional Officers

 Thomas Gaydos, Aaron Chambers, John Evans, Luther Cary, Zachary Lynch, and Amos Best are, or were at the time of the fire, correctional officers at the D.C. Jail. To the extent that the allegations against these defendants involve conduct during and after the fire, the complaint has already been dismissed. This Court previously held that the behavior of the correctional officers during and after the fire was fully reasonable in light of the circumstances. That decision applied both to prison officials and to "correction officers on the scene," and it was affirmed by the Court of Appeals. Hence that issue is settled. The only question, therefore, is whether notwithstanding that dismissal, any legitimate complaint remains against these officers.

 Plaintiffs contend that significant allegations are still alive. However, almost every one of the allegations cited by plaintiffs involves conduct during and after the fire. *fn6" The Court will not permit a regurgitation of issues that have been decided.

 The only remaining allegation that could even arguably involve the correctional officers is that in paragraph 90 of the complaint which states that the fire was a consequence of "the joint decision of all defendants to maintain the District of Columbia Jail in such a manner as to constitute a constant threat to plaintiffs' safety." Notwithstanding that broad and conclusory claim, plaintiffs now agree, as they must, that the correctional officers at the jail are not policymakers. *fn7" These officers, also known as guards, have no role in decisionmaking as to how the jail should be maintained. Indeed, the decision in which they are alleged to have participated -- to maintain the jail in such a manner as to constitute a threat to the inmates; i.e., to allow ...


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