Federal Appeals Court Issues Decision Regarding Jail Underwear Policy

Author: Kevin A. Chrzanowski
March 20, 2017

In Mulvania v. Sheriff of Rock Island County, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit was asked by the named plaintiff and ten additional female detainees to review the Rock Island Sheriff’s policy requiring female detainees to wear white underwear during their time in detention. The United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The Seventh Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment.

The Rock Island County Sheriff’s policy required detainees with colored underwear to remove their colored underwear upon admission to the jail and either purchase white underwear from the jail’s commissary, contact family members to obtain white underwear, or wear no underwear during their detention. The Sheriff’s justification for the policy was to prevent detainees from extracting ink from colored underwear to be used in making tattoos. The Sheriff, however, did not identify any instances of ink from colored underwear being used to make tattoos.

The Court of Appeals analyzed the claims of the detainees under the Fourteenth Amendment instead of the Eighth Amendment, which prevents cruel and unusual punishment, citing that detainees are not convicted prisoners. As the Court indicated, “the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause prohibits holding pretrial detainees in conditions that ‘amount to punishment.’” A pretrial condition is considered “punishment” if it is imposed for the purpose of punishment or it is not reasonably related to a legitimate governmental interest. The Court noted that the Sheriff’s security concern justification was undermined by the fact that the Sheriff often did not enforce the policy. The Court’s opinion stated that even if the policy was found to be rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest, the harm to the individual dignity of detainees might be excessive in relation to the governmental interest. As a result, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the summary judgment finding in favor of defendants and the case was remanded for further proceedings.