A number of pre-trial detainees and convicted inmates housed at the Sherburne County Jail during the COVID-19 pandemic filed suit against the County claiming that, during their detention, the jail had implemented unconstitutional policies and customs which had unlawfully restricted their constitutional right to exercise protected by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution.

As a matter of principle, in the prison in question inmates are “generally” permitted one hour of activity in one of the jail’s gyms five days per week. In addition to gym recreation, inmates are permitted to exercise by walking in their housing unit dayroom.

However, during the pandemic, since the Minnesota Department of Health counseled against gym recreation, the prison suspended such an activity. Inmates were only permitted to walk in the dayroom and exercise in their cells; they were prohibited from doing more than walking in the dayroom as a form of exercise because doing so would result in heavy breathing that could cause the virus to spread through air droplets.

According to the plaintiffs, this deprivation of constitutional rights resulted in adverse health effects such as weight gain or loss, mental and emotional stress, muscle atrophy, and various physical discomforts.

Defendants contended that the plaintiffs’ pursuit of monetary relief was precluded by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) due to the lack of sufficient physical injury resulting from gym closures. The PLRA mandates a showing of physical injury for federal actions brought by prisoners for mental or emotional distress during custody.

On 31 October 2023, the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota agreed with the defendants and dismissed the suit brought by the inmates. The Court held that the alleged injuries were de minimis and therefore insufficient for monetary damages.

In addition, the Court found that even if plaintiffs’ injuries were more than de minimis, their claims would still have failed. As a premise, the Court recalled that to establish unconstitutional policies in this context, plaintiffs were required to show that the County was deliberately indifferent to their exercise needs. In the Court’s view, in the instance case plaintiff had failed to do so. Indeed, from the casefile it resulted that Plaintiffs were generally allowed several hours outside their cells, permitted to walk in the dayroom, and encouraged to exercise in their cells during gym closures with provided workout guides.

Furthermore, the Court emphasized the need to balance inmates’ right to exercise outside their cells with the jail’s valid concerns regarding order and security. Given the unprecedented and disruptive nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Court refrained from questioning decisions made during this extraordinary period. Taking into account public health recommendations and using common sense, the Court determined that the limitations on inmate movement and the closure of gyms, although inconvenient, were reasonable and not unduly excessive in preventing COVID-19 outbreaks.

Reference: B v. Cnty. of Sherburne, United States District Court for the District of Minnesota, 31 October 2023.

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