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  • Writer's pictureSam Orlando

Federal Lawsuit Alleging Cruel Punishment at VA Prison Over Use of "Dry Cells" May Spell Trouble for the DOC

Written by: Sam Orlando

Dry Cell Use Violates Eight Amendment, Claims Blakeney

ROANOKE, VA – A federal lawsuit filed on February 26, 2024, in the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia by inmate Dean Blakeney against Nottoway Correctional Center officials is raising eyebrows in legal circles, drawing parallels to a recent Fourth Circuit decision. Blakeney alleges cruel punishment for being held in a "dry cell" for 23 days without justification, a scenario that, while more prolonged, echoes the concerns of the court in Jones v. Solomon, 90 F.4th 198 (Jan. 3, 2024). Dry Cells are used in prison when an inmate is believed to have ingested contraband, and involves the housing of an inmate in a cell with no running water. The inmate is required to have a certain number of bowel movements, which are inspected by prison officials.

Recent Fourth Circuit Case May Help Plaintiff

In Jones, the Fourth Circuit grappled with an inmate's Eighth Amendment claim after being confined in a dry cell for 24-48 hours under conditions lacking basic sanitation and hygiene. The court ultimately decided that the prison employees were entitled to qualified immunity, emphasizing the lack of specific evidence of a risk of serious physical injury from the confinement. However, the court noted it was a "close question," acknowledging that slightly more severe or longer-lasting conditions could indeed violate the Eighth Amendment.

Blakeney's case could potentially fare better in light of the Jones precedent, given the significantly longer duration of his confinement. The 23-day period far exceeds the timeframe considered by the Fourth Circuit, possibly tipping the balance towards a finding of Eighth Amendment violations due to the extended denial of basic sanitation and the psychological impact of prolonged solitary confinement.

Blakeney's Case Presented Far Longer Confinement in Dry Cell Than in Jones

Legal experts point to the Jones decision's emphasis on the specific conditions of confinement and the duration as critical factors in assessing Eighth Amendment claims. The court's acknowledgment that a more extended period of similar conditions might cross the constitutional threshold suggests that Blakeney's prolonged experience in a dry cell could present a compelling argument against the constitutionality of his treatment.

Moreover, Jones highlighted the importance of evidence regarding the risk to inmate health posed by such confinement conditions. Blakeney's case, with its extended period of confinement, might more readily demonstrate a tangible risk to physical and psychological well-being, potentially satisfying the evidentiary concerns that limited Jones.

Are Dry Cells Torture?

The lawsuit also raises questions about the use of dry cells and solitary confinement within the Virginia correctional system, particularly in cases lacking clear evidence or justification for such measures. Prisoner rights activists point to the depravity and lack of cleanliness involved in the use of such techniques. As the legal community watches closely, Blakeney's case may not only challenge the practices of the Virginia Department of Corrections but also further define the boundaries of Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

As this case moves forward, it will likely attract attention from civil rights advocates and organizations focused on prison reform, further fueling the debate over solitary confinement and inmate rights within the United States correctional system. The outcome could prompt policy revisions or increased oversight to prevent similar incidents, potentially influencing how correctional facilities nationwide handle similar situations in the future.

The Virginia Department of Corrections has yet to issue a response to the allegations made in Blakeney's lawsuit, but the case serves as a critical reminder of the ongoing concerns regarding inmate treatment and the potential for abuse of solitary confinement practices in correctional facilities.


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