The Tennessee Supreme Court has held that an "insufficient” jail under T.C.A. § 41-4-121 includes one that is so overcrowded that it violates the prisoner's rights under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. State v. Walker, 905 S.W.2d 554, 557 (Tenn. 1995).
If a sheriff is of the opinion that he is being asked to house too many inmates at his facility, he can request the committing judge or any circuit or criminal judge to order prisoners removed to the nearest sufficient jail. Under T.C.A. § 41-4-121(c), the court may order such a transfer "[i]n all cases where the jail in which the prisoner is confined becomes insufficient from any cause ..." The population level is relevant to the determination of sufficiency, but is not conclusive as to this issue.
With regard to the sheriff's legal obligations under the Eighth Amendment, it is important to bear in mind that insufficiency under the statute is not the same thing as unconstitutionality. The jail is not necessarily unconstitutionally overcrowded simply because it houses more inmates than its Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) capacity. Feliciano v. Barcelo, 497 F.Supp. 14, 35 (D.P.R.1979). TCI and American Correctional Association (ACA) standards do not establish the constitutional standard. Grubbs v. Bradley, 552 F.Supp. 1052, 1124 (M.D. Tenn. 1982). Overcrowding is not a per se constitutional violation. Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 101 S.Ct. 2392, 69 L.Ed.2d 59 (1981).
Op. Tenn. Atty. Gen. 89-65 (April 28, 1989). See also Op. Tenn. Atty. Gen. 02-015 (February 6, 2002) (This office has maintained "that insufficiency under the statute is not the same thing as unconstitutionality. The jail is not necessarily unconstitutionally overcrowded simply because it houses more inmates than its Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) capacity.").
“It is ... beyond dispute that county officials have a duty to maintain their jails to minimize the risks resulting from overcrowding, i.e., conflicts among and injury to those individuals incarcerated in the jail, lest they violate the prisoners' constitutional rights (and subject themselves to liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.).” Patrick v. Jasper County, 901 F.2d 561, 569, n. 16 (7th Cir. 1990), citing Carver v. Knox County, 887 F.2d 1287 (6th Cir. 1989); Union County Jail Inmates v. DiBuono, 713 F.2d 984 (3d Cir. 1983), cert. denied, 465 U.S. 1102, 104 S.Ct. 1600, 80 L.Ed.2d 130 (1984).
However, overcrowding is not a per se constitutional violation. Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 101 S.Ct. 2392, 69 L.Ed.2d 59 (1981). A claim alleging that the "overall conditions" of confinement are inadequate cannot give rise to an Eighth Amendment violation when no specific deprivation of a single human need exists. Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 305, 111 S.Ct. 2321, 2327, 115 L.Ed.2d 271 (1991) (“Nothing so amorphous as ‘overall conditions’ can rise to the level of cruel and unusual punishment when no specific deprivation of a single human need exists.”).
In Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 99 S.Ct. 1861, 60 L.Ed.2d 447 (1979), the Supreme Court held that "double-bunking" pretrial detainees in cells that have a total floor space of approximately 75 square feet did not violate the pretrial detainees’ due process rights. “[W]e are convinced as a matter of law that ‘double-bunking’ as practiced at the MCC did not amount to punishment and did not, therefore, violate respondents' rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.” Id. at 541, 99 S.Ct. at 1875. In Bell, the Court noted that the respondents' “reliance on other lower court decisions concerning minimum space requirements for different institutions and on correctional standards issued by various groups was misplaced.” Id. at 543, n. 27, 99 S.Ct. at 1876, n. 27. The Court stated that “while the recommendations of these various groups may be instructive in certain cases, they simply do not establish the constitutional minima; rather, they establish goals recommended by the organization in question.” Id.
In Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 101 S.Ct. 2392, 69 L.Ed.2d 59 (1981), the United States Supreme Court considered whether double-bunking inmates in 63 square foot cells was cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The Supreme Court found no Eighth Amendment violation.
The court found that the double-celling made necessary by an unanticipated increase in the prison population (38 percent over design capacity) did not lead to deprivations of essential food, medical care, or sanitation. The court found no evidence that double-celling under the circumstances of the case either inflicted unnecessary or wanton pain or was grossly disproportionate to the severity of crimes warranting imprisonment. The court noted that the Constitution does not mandate comfortable prisons. Id. at 348, 101 S.Ct. at 2400.
In finding a constitutional violation, the lower court had relied on, among other considerations, square footage standards promulgated by the American Correctional Association (60-80 square feet); the National Sheriffs' Association (70-80 square feet); and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (50 square feet). The Supreme Court stated that the lower court had “erred in assuming that opinions of experts as to desirable prison conditions suffice to establish contemporary standards of decency.” As the court noted in Bell v. Wolfish, such opinions may be helpful and relevant with respect to some questions, but "they simply do not establish the constitutional minima; rather, they establish goals recommended by the organization in question." Id. at 350, n. 13, 101 S.Ct. at 2401, n. 13, citing Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 543-544, n. 27, 99 S.Ct. 1861, 1876, n. 27, 60 L.Ed.2d 447 (1979).
In Stevenson v. Whetsel, 52 Fed.Appx. 444 (10th Cir. 2002), the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the county's placement of three pretrial detainees in a jail cell designed for two did not violate the detainee's due process rights. The court held that the detainee could not recover damages for injuries allegedly sustained due to prison overcrowding absent a showing that the overcrowding resulted in the denial of the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities, or that prison officials were aware that overcrowding created excessive risks to inmate safety.
[O]vercrowding alone is not “sufficiently serious” to establish a constitutional violation. Stevenson has not demonstrated that placing three inmates in a cell designed for two denied him the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities. He has not alleged that the situation led to “deprivations of essential food, medical care, or sanitation.” Nor has he alleged facts allowing an inference that conditions rose to the level of “conditions posing a substantial risk of serious harm.”
Id. at 446. See also Kennibrew v. Russell, 578 F.Supp. 164, 168 (E.D. Tenn. 1983) (The United States Supreme Court has held that double-celling of prison inmates in cells containing 63 square feet of floor space (31.5 square feet per inmate) does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.).
“The constitutional standard on overcrowding cannot be expressed in a square footage formula. Rather, whether a particular institution is unconstitutionally overcrowded depends on a number of factors including the size of the inmate's living space, the length of time the inmate spends in his cell each day, the length of time of his incarceration, his opportunity for exercise and his general sanitary and living conditions.” Carver v. Knox County, 753 F.Supp. 1398, 1401 (E.D. Tenn. 1990) (citations omitted). The correct legal standard recognizes that the issue is not overcrowding per se, rather, it is unconstitutional overcrowding. In other words, a prison facility is not unconstitutional simply because it is overcrowded. In order to ascertain whether a particular facility is unconstitutionally overcrowded, the court must review “...a number of factors including the size of the inmates' living space, the length of time the inmate spends in his cell each day, the length of time of his incarceration, his opportunity for exercise and his general sanitary and living conditions...”. Id. However, even though the court is required to consider all of the prison's conditions and circumstances in evaluating the sentenced inmates' Eighth Amendment claims, the court must find a specific condition on which to base an Eighth Amendment claim, i.e., it must amount to a deprivation of “life's necessities.” Id. at 1400 (citations omitted).
See Roberts v. Tennessee Dept. of Correction, 887 F.2d 1281 (6th Cir. 1989) and Carver v. Knox County, 887 F.2d 1287 (6th Cir. 1989), for cases dealing with the court ordered removal of state inmates from county jails.