This is the kind of case that probably gives government defense lawyers ulcers. They made out o.k. in the end, but the jury verdict had to be a bad shock. The 7th Circuit recently decided the case of Freeman v. Berge (pdf). Freeman was a prisoner at a maximum security Wisconsin state prison. The prison’s feeding rules require the prisoner to stand in the middle of his cell, with the lights on, when the meal is delivered and that he be wearing trousers or gym shorts.
Mr. Freeman decided he didn’t want to wear pants, just his underwear. So, the prison didn’t feed him when he refused to wear pants. Sometimes, Mr. Freeman wanted to keep a sock on his head. The prison was concerned that the sock could be a weapon, depending what was inside of the sock. So, when he refused to remove it from his head, they didn’t feed him. Other times, Mr. Freeman decided it would be neat to smear the walls of his cell with blood and feces. When he refused to clean the walls, the prison refused to feed him.
As a result, he skipped so many meals he lost 45 pounds. He sued, claiming cruel and unusual punishment. A jury agreed and awarded him $50,000 in compensatory damages and $1.2 million in punitive damages. The trial court decided to disregard the jury verdict and enter judgment for the defendant “as a matter of law” (which essentially means that the trial court determined that, the jury’s conclusion notwithstanding, was no support for the jury’s conclusion based on the evidence presented.)
The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court. The court distinguished between deprivation of food being used as a punishment and deprivation of food caused by the prisoner’s failure to comply with reasonable food service rules. The Court found the pro-pants, anti-fecal matter rules of the prison to be reasonable and, accordingly, said the prisoner wasn’t entitled to his $1.25 million.