Prison Lighting & Your Facility’s Legal Responsibility

Providing adequate prison lighting is covered under conditions of refinement pertaining to incarcerated individuals in the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Under the 8th Amendment, correctional facility officials must ensure that those housed in their facilities receive adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. They must also take reasonable measures to ensure the safety of inmates. This includes providing adequate lighting.

Legal Precedence Regarding Prison Lighting

In Hoptowit v. Spellman in 1985, the 9th Circuit Court held that the correctional facility violated the 8th Amendment based on evidence that the lighting was so poor that it was inadequate for reading and caused eyestrain and fatigue, and hindered attempts to ensure that basic sanitation was maintained. Further, the courts have credited expert testimony asserting that lighting in cells was grossly inadequate for the purposes of sanitation, personal hygiene, and reading, that such a condition also contributes to further mental health deterioration.

To prove an 8th Amendment violation based on correctional facility conditions, the court ruling said that a prisoner must satisfy a two-part test. The objective part of the test requires showing that the defendants deprived the plaintiff of the “minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities” and the subjective part requires showing that the defendants “acted with ‘deliberate indifference’ in doing so.”

In the case, the Supreme Court held that any correctional facility policy or regulation must have a valid, rational connection between the regulation and a legitimate and neutral governmental interest justifying it.

While the majority of cases and laws on the books speak specifically about prisons, it is critical to note that the same requirements stand true for all correctional and detention facilities in the United States, including prisons, state jails, county jails, city jails, and lockups.

The courts, both federal and state, use footcandle [fc] as the standard of measurement for prison lighting and not lux. When drafting a report, or preparing for testimony before the court, it is wise to make your recordings consistent with the court accepted standard (fc) and avoid references to lux altogether. This will avoid confusion and keep the dialogue away from the conversion controversy that could cause the exclusion of measured findings.

Federal Minimum Jail and Prison Lighting Levels

Currently the only existing, directly measurable minimum lighting requirement by the courts is that of 20 footcandles for cells. Interestingly, while the courts have accepted this illumination level as a standard, they do not go as far as to specify the manner in which such a measurement is to be taken. (i.e. height, surface, room location, etc.) As such, the focus of lighting areas for the purposes of sanitation, personal hygiene, and reading, and in an effort to reduce mental health deterioration, correctional facility officials, lighting designers, and lighting experts need focus their measurements of minimum illumination levels in these specific areas to ensure adherence with 8th Amendment Constitutional requirements for adequate shelter.

Required Maximum Prison Lighting Levels

Currently, there are no maximum lighting level requirements for correctional facilities through state or federal laws, or by state or federal courts. The courts have recognized that correctional facility officials have significant penological interests in deciding what is proper for the safety and security of their facility. As such, it remains the purview of the correctional facility officials to determine what maximum lighting levels are appropriate for the various parts of their facilities. In so doing, reasonable, trained, and experienced correctional facility officials focus their efforts on the penological interest needs of the facility, and the security and safety needs of staff, officers, and inmates. It is extremely important to ensure that at no point is lighting to be utilized as a punishment tool.

Constant Illumination

Currently, it is not well-settled whether it is an 8th Amendment violation to subject inmates to constant illumination. The United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has provided direction that there are possible legitimate penological interests when considering allegations that continuous lighting violated the 8th Amendment. The same court later upheld a district court’s decision finding that legitimate penological reasons support utilizing 24-hour lighting [constant illumination] in certain circumstances.

What is clear, and most critical to ensure, is that any use of constant illumination has a legitimate penological interest and is not utilized as a punishment tool.

Natural Light

Although far from well-settled, correctional facility officials and lighting designers should make reasonable efforts to provide natural light for inmates where and when it is reasonably possible and reasonably practical.

Private Association Standards

It is critical for correctional facility officials to remember that, with rare exceptions, they are the ones responsible for setting the standards at their facility. Respective of prison lighting, except for the less than specific standard of 20 fc in cells for the purpose of sanitation, personal hygiene, and reading, the lighting standards are set by the correctional facility officials based on the legitimate penological needs of that facility and in providing adequate shelter under the 8th Amendment to the inmates of the facility.

Private organizations may offer suggestions and recommendations but, as the courts have found, subservience to these private organizations’ standards is not proof that any conditions in question do not violate the 8th Amendment. Compliance with such standards may be considered by the courts as a relevant consideration; it is not, however, per se evidence of constitutionality. The responsibility for ensuring compliance with the 8th Amendment rests with the correctional officials responsible for that facility or the elected officials they work for.

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