Arrow-right Camera


Judges demand more facts in Airway Heights prison lighting case

In this photo taken Aug. 29, 2013, an exterior fence outlines the Airway Heights Corrections Center in Airway Heights. (Associated Press)
In this photo taken Aug. 29, 2013, an exterior fence outlines the Airway Heights Corrections Center in Airway Heights. (Associated Press)

Keeping an inmate in a special cell at the Airway Heights prison where a light is always on might qualify as cruel and unusual punishment as a prisoner claimed, a federal appeals court said.

Or it might not. A three-judge panel for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case of inmate Neil Grenning back to a judge in Spokane for further hearings because state officials didn’t provide enough information on how bright the light was and how it affected Grenning before his lawsuit was dismissed.

“There are material issues of fact remaining,” Judges Ferdinand Fernandez and William Fletcher said in the 2-1 majority opinion.

The court has previously ruled that keeping a prisoner in a cell where lights are on around the clock can be classified as cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment if prison officials are being “deliberately indifferent” to depriving an inmate of “minimal civilized measures of life’s necessities.”

Grenning was placed in a Special Management Unit cell for an investigation of being involved in a fight. The cell has three fluorescent bulbs; a switch in the cell allows the inmate to turn off two, but the middle bulb, which has a blue cover, is always on.

Prison officials said the continuous lighting was necessary for guards to monitor the prisoners. Grenning said it kept him from sleeping even when he wrapped towels around his eyes. He also said it gave him migraines and left him so he couldn’t tell day from night.

Prison officials submitted tests of the amount of light from two different cells, but the appeals court said the lighting expert didn’t measure the light in Grenning’s cell and did not mention that he got different readings from different meters.

“We are unable to determine from this record how bright the lighting in Grenning’s cell actually was,” the court’s majority said. “While we could speculate … on this limited record that would be inappropriate.”

State prison officials also didn’t make it clear why Grenning was in the special cell. He could have attacked someone, been attacked or been an innocent bystander caught up in a melee. So it’s unclear whether the reasons the prison usually has for keeping the lights on apply to him, the judges said.

In his dissent, Judge Johnnie Rawlinson said he was satisfied with the reasons Airway Heights officials listed for putting inmates in the special unit: “As federal judges, we are in no position to second-guess the legitimacy of these proffered justifications.”

There are four comments on this story »