Friday, July 03, 2009

Eighth Circuit to Women Prisoners: Take Parenting and "Health Lifestyles," Not Accounting

[Guest post authored by my colleague, Giovanna Shay]

On July 2nd, the Eighth Circuit issued an opinion rejecting a challenge to women's prison programming under Title IX and Equal Protection, the latest in a series of such cases from that region. Yesterday's opinion, Roubideaux v. North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 2009 WL 1885431 (8th Cir. 2009), joined suits brought by prisoners in women's facilities in Nebraska, Missouri, and Iowa. In Roubideaux, as in the other cases, the women prisoners lost.

Until 1998, North Dakota women prisoners were housed at facilities with male inmates. At the time that they filed suit, they were facing transfer to other institutions, including county jails, where they feared that programming and educational opportunities would be inferior. They filed suit under Title IX and §1983.

The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants. In its factual findings, it determined that all prisoners could take computer classes, work force training classes, and college classes. Prisoners at the female facility could take a welding class and "classes in basic parenting, social skills, speech, and healthy lifestyles." By contrast, prisoners at the men's facility could take a food service vocational program, an auto technical program, welding and carpentry classes, accounting, restaurant management, and heating and air conditioning courses. It also rejected women prisoners' claims that there were "gender-based inequalities" in the prison industries program (in which the women's facility offered a "cut and sew operation" and a "lock/key industry"), concluding that the "prison industries" program was not an "educational" program within the meaning of Title IX.

The Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling rejecting the women prisoners' claims. It concurred that the prison industries program was not an "educational" program within the meaning of Title IX. Although there is an opportunity for on-the-job training in "prison industries," the Court reasoned, it is primarily a work program, paying inmate wages, and so not covered by Title IX. The Eighth Circuit also rejected Title IX claims regarding the unequal provision of other vocational educational programming, citing its earlier decision in the Nebraska case, Klinger v. Dept. of Correction, 107 F.3d 609 (8th Cir. 1997). "Title IX requires a comparison of the educational opportunities available to female and to male prisoners within a state's entire system of federally funded correctional institutions," it wrote, "taking into account the objective differences between the male and female prison populations and such penological and security considerations as are necessary to accommodate in this unique context."

In gender-segregated prisons, the Court reasoned, "significant differences" between prison populations may exist, "such as unequal population sizes and length of stay." Title IX requires that programs in male and female prisons be compared to ensure that the prisoners in the women's facilities are receiving "equal educational opportunities consistent with those differences." The Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's conclusion the differences in programming available to prisoners at the male and female facilities resulted from "the location of the inmates," not gender-based inequality. The Court of Appeals also rejected the Equal Protection challenge, concluding that there was "no inference of discrimination" because the population in the female institutions was smaller than that in the male institutions, and the transfer of the female inmates to county facilities was "substantially relate[d] to the important governmental objective of providing adequate segregated housing for women inmates." In light of the different numbers of prisoners in the male and female facilities, the Court concluded, citing its Klinger opinion, 31 F.3d 727, 733 (8th Cir. 1994), comparing their programs was like comparing "apples to oranges."