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Wharton v. Danberg

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

April 19, 2017


          Argued November 3, 2016

         APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF DELAWARE (D.C. Civ. Action No. 1-12-cv-01240) District Judge: Honorable Leonard P. Stark

          Stephen A. Hampton, Esq. [ARGUED] Grady & Hampton Counsel for Appellants

          Michael F. McTaggart, Esq. [ARGUED] Delaware Department of Justice Counsel for Appellees

          Richard H. Morse, Esq. American Civil Liberties Union Counsel for Amicus Curiae

          Before: JORDAN, GREENAWAY, JR., and RENDELL, Circuit Judges.


          GREENAWAY, JR., Circuit Judge.

         This putative class action alleges that the Delaware correctional system routinely fails to release inmates in a timely manner, holding them for days or weeks beyond when they should be set free. Appellants, a group of inmates who were over-detained, have sued top correctional officials- specifically, former Delaware Department of Corrections ("DDOC") Commissioner Carl Danberg, current DDOC Commissioner Robert Coupe, [1] and Rebecca McBride, the current Director of the DDOC Central Offender Records division ("COR")-seeking both damages and structural reform of COR. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Danberg, McBride, and Coupe (Appellees). We will affirm.

         I. FACTS

         In 2008, the Delaware correctional system was facing scandal for its handling of inmate releases. One inmate, Jermaine Lamar Wilson, committed suicide in his cell on the day he was supposed to be-but was not-released.[2] Dozens of other inmates had either been released too early or too late. National experts, cited in contemporaneous press reports, expressed surprise about how many Delaware inmates were improperly released. As gubernatorial candidates from both parties attacked the state correctional system, there was high-level support for reform.

         That reform took shape in the establishment of a new Central Offender Records office within the Delaware Department of Corrections. Previously, staff at each prison handled releases individually. COR was meant to centralize, standardize, and generally improve the state's processing of inmate releases. The creation of COR, led by then-DDOC Commissioner Carl Danberg, was a substantial bureaucratic undertaking, requiring the department to coordinate with legislators, the judiciary, and its unionized employees.

         This litigation, however, contests whether centralization has brought improvement. Appellants allege that Delaware's problems with over-detentions have, if anything, gotten worse since 2008.

         Under the new system, after an inmate is ordered to be released (because he or she posted bail, because their bail was changed from secured to unsecured, or because they completed their sentence, to offer a few examples), the court is supposed to fax an order to COR. COR then checks whether there is a reason to continue holding the individual- for example, an outstanding warrant-and if there is not, sends instructions to the facility where they are being held for that individual's release.

         Undoubtedly, there were bumps along the way to a centralized system. In 2008, Danberg himself admitted that the creation of COR had caused confusion during the transition itself. Led by Appellees, DDOC has attempted to improve COR's functioning since its inception. COR has an official goal of processing all releases within 24 hours. Observing delays in the processing of releases, Appellees have increased staffing levels. They created a new six-month orientation period for new hires at COR. In 2010, COR adopted a new computer system, called the Delaware Automated Correction System ("DACS") which is meant to foster better tracking of release dates and the "triage" of records to prioritize releases.[3] JA 15. Finally, COR created a new priority unit for releases likely to be fast and easy, such as those whose bail is changed to unsecured or those whose charges are dismissed. According to McBride, she and her co-defendants are "always looking at ways to be more efficient." JA 12.

         Even with these interventions, however, Appellants suggest that COR is badly broken, causing or allowing the over-detention of as many as thousands of inmates a year.[4]To support their theory of over-detention, Appellants submitted a disparate and somewhat disjointed assortment of affidavits from several witnesses whose work brings them in close contact with the correctional system. These affidavits, described below, reported huge numbers of over-detentions, albeit in an impressionistic fashion based on the affiants' own personal observations and estimates.

         First, a former records clerk at COR named Brenda Bell[5] estimated that 10 to 20 percent of release orders received by COR were not processed and sent to a correctional facility within 24 hours, and that 20 to 30 inmates per week ended up spending more than two days waiting for COR to send their release order to their facility.

         Second, a bail bondsperson, Bruny Mercado, [6]calculated that about 35 percent of people for whom she had posted bond were held for more than 24 hours after bond was posted, and 25 percent of people were held for more than 48 hours afterward. Mercado also said that she had seen no improvement at COR in its four years of existence.

         Third, a Delaware public defender, Sandra Dean, [7]averred that over-detention was a "consistent problem" for her clients. JA 179. She reported that she had her secretary call COR every day to inquire about clients whose release had been ordered by the courts and that she followed up personally with COR for clients who were not released after three days. Notably, although Dean only served as a public defender until 2010, she claimed that the over-detention problem worsened at the end of that period.

         Given that COR processes between 16, 000 and 18, 000 releases per year, these affidavits allege as many as 6, 300 over-detentions a year. The affidavits also allege that COR was informed of the problem, both by Dean's regular inquiries and by Mercado, who stated that she had spoken personally with McBride about the over-detention problems.

         On the other hand, hard, reliable data about the number of over-detentions occurring each year is more or less missing from the record. Appellants' affidavits put forth various estimates of the over-detention problem, but no precise quantification or authoritative analysis. They offer a limited ability to understand how the problem has changed over time.

         In contrast, Appellees do not even attempt to provide a systematic accounting of over-detentions from their own archives. Rather, they base their count of over-detentions on Appellants' ability to identify specific over-detained inmates.

         The record does include various tables purporting to show the number of over-detentions each month, which totaled to two each year of the relevant period except for FY '10, when there were 18 over-detentions. But neither party treats those tables as reliable. Given the absence of information about the source of that data, we likewise decline to treat these tables as reliable.[8]

         According to Appellants, two specific problems at COR, in addition to the general failure of the centralization effort, account for the continuing trouble with over-detentions. First, they claim that COR is under-staffed generally and particularly short-handed on nights and weekends. COR employees and former employees testified that the division would be able to process releases more quickly and avoid over-detentions if it had more staff or was open more hours. Coverage is worse on weekends: although fewer releases arrive at COR on weekends, staffing levels are more-than-proportionally thinner. COR also typically closes its offices between 10:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. and over holidays, which Appellants allege leads to worse delays during those periods (Delaware's Justice of the Peace Courts, which send releases to COR, remain open 24/7). During those periods, however, COR supervisors are on call around the clock to handle any problems that might arise. Appellee McBride testified that she has never received any complaints about coverage while COR offices were closed, and there is no record evidence that over-detentions cluster around holidays or are otherwise affected by these closures.

         Second, Appellants argue that COR is unresponsive to inmates and those acting on their behalf. Prisoners cannot contact COR directly, except by mail. If they want more immediate communication with COR-and time is of the essence for an inmate detained past his release date-they must request that prison staff email COR. Prisoners' families, friends, and bail bondsmen can call COR directly, but generally complain that COR is frequently unhelpful or indifferent, when it can be reached at all. Outside input allegedly falls on deaf ears. But inmates and their associates are the individuals best placed to know ...

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