February 2013 Bar Bulletin
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February 2013 Bar Bulletin

No On-Off Switch:

The Problem of 24-Hour Prison Lighting

By Hunter Ferguson


Have you ever tried to sleep with a fluorescent light shining above your head? Perhaps during a long night at the office you have spread out on the floor for a catnap. If so, you have probably turned off the light to make it easier to sleep.

Many prisoners do not have that ability. For example, inmates assigned to the Segregation Management Unit (SMU) at the Airway Heights CorrecĀ­tional Center (AHCC) near Spokane are confined to cells that are constantly illuminated by overhead fluorescent lighting. Tests conducted by AHCC personnel show that the intensity of this lighting at bunk level is at least 10 foot-candles, which is roughly equal to the brightness of 10 lit candles a foot away from one's eyes.

Numerous AHCC inmates confined to the SMU have complained to prison officials that this constant lighting prevents sleeping, causes severe headaches and makes it difficult to tell night from day. One such complaint is currently the subject of a pending Ninth Circuit appeal.1

The U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized sleep deprivation as a form of torture2 and, as explained below, some inmates have successfully challenged 24-hour lighting practices as being in violation of the Eighth AmendĀ­ment. Despite the recognition that there is no penological justification for inflicting physical and psychological harm on inmates by forcing them to live in constant illumination, courts frequently have upheld constant illumination practices, concluding that such lighting only causes discomfort, not injury.

The reasoning of these decisions is troubling given that there are no minimum standards to guide courts as to what levels of light are compatible with sleep, which one court has described as "certainly an identifiable human need."3 Numerous studies also show that exposure to constant illumination does not merely cause discomfort, but carries several serious health risks. Accordingly, courts should closely scrutinize 24-hour prison lighting, and prison officials and policymakers should endeavor to develop standards and use lighting technology that minimize risks to inmates' health.

Judicial Decisions

Beginning with cases in which inmates have brought successful constant-illumination claims, the leading authority is Keenan v. Hall.4 There, the Ninth Circuit declared that "adequate lighting is one of the fundamental attributes of adequate shelter required by the Eighth Amendment" and that "there is no penological justification for requiring [inmates] to suffer physical and psychological harm by living in constant illumination. This practice is unconstitutional."5

Keenan complained that fluorescent light shone into his cell 24 hours a day so that he was unable to tell night from day and suffered "grave sleeping problems," as well as "other mental and psychological problems."6 The court rejected the defense of prison officials that Keenan would avoid the effect of the light if he slept with his head to the back of his cell and held that Keenan had produced evidence creating a genuine issue of material fact that defeated summary judgment.7

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