Saturday, March 2, 2013

Judge Rules That Retaliation Lawsuit Against Department of Corrections Can Proceed


A press release by the ACLU
March 1, 2013
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: (212) 549-2666; media@aclu.org

A federal judge yesterday refused to dismiss an ACLU lawsuit brought on behalf of an ACI inmate who was retaliated against by guards after he publicly criticized Department of Corrections’ mail policies and sought legal assistance from the ACLU. The pattern of harassment against inmate Jason Cook, which included strip searches, loss of his prison job, destruction of his personal property, and disciplinary time in segregation, began after Cook was quoted in a Providence Journal story criticizing a DOC policy limiting the written materials available to inmates. The policy was later rescinded.

The ACLU lawsuit argues that corrections officials’ actions “in retaliating against Cook for publicly criticizing policy changes” at the DOC violated his First Amendment right to freedom of speech “and displayed both deliberate indifference and a reckless disregard of Cook’s constitutional rights.” The suit further claims that the various disciplinary actions taken against him violated Cook’s due process rights.

In court, the Department of Corrections made the troubling argument that Cook had no First Amendment right to speak to the Providence Journal about the policy and therefore his suit should be thrown out. Last September, a magistrate judge rejected DOC’s argument, but the agency appealed that ruling. Yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge William Smith agreed that the ACLU’s retaliation claims could proceed, and further ruled that Cook’s due process claims should also not be dismissed.

The mail policy at issue that Cook initially protested, and that was ultimately withdrawn after the ACLU intervened, barred family members from ordering books or magazine subscriptions for inmates. Instead, inmates could only obtain publications directly from a publisher with their own funds. The lawsuit is being handled by ACLU volunteer attorneys from the law firm of DeLuca and Weizenbaum.

ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown said today: “The DOC’s position that inmates could be disciplined simply for bringing prison conditions and policies to the public’s attention was extremely troubling. We are pleased that the court has rejected it, and that Mr. Cook can proceed with his claims.” A summary of the actions taken against Cook after he spoke out:

ALLEGATIONS OF RETALIATION AGAINST JASON COOK BY DOC OFFICIALS
  • In October 2007, a Providence Journal story quoted Cook criticizing a new DOC policy limiting the written materials available to inmates. A week later, he was fired from his kitchen job under the pretext that he was caught on a video camera stealing state property. He was later found not guilty of the charge.
  • In February 2008, the RI ACLU intervened on Cook’s behalf in the dispute over the new inmate mail policy by writing DOC officials in support of his position. Shortly thereafter, correctional officers conducted a destructive search of Cook’s cell that damaged some of his personal property.
  • After complaining to the DOC’s Office of Inspections about that search, Cook was advised that other inmates in his module with similar complaints should contact the Office. Cook posted a notice to that effect on an inmate bulletin board. A few days later, as a result of that posting, he was disciplined for “engaging in or encouraging a group demonstration and/or activities,” strip searched and taken to segregation. Two weeks later, he was finally given a hearing on the charge, but not allowed to present and/or question any witnesses. In the meantime, the mail policy about which he and the ACLU had complained was rescinded by the DOC.
  • Cook was found guilty of the charge and sanctioned with 30 days in segregation and the loss of good time. At the end of the hearing on the charge, the hearing officer turned off the tape recorder of the proceeding and told Cook that “this is what happens when you get the ACLU involved in our business.”
  • In May 2008, Cook was once again strip searched and thrown into segregation on the grounds that a letter he had written to the Parole Board was “threatening.” He was held in segregation for almost three weeks without a hearing before being released.
  • In September 2008, Cook sent a letter to Corrections Director A.T. Wall protesting the lack of a response to grievances he had submitted. Two days later, Cook was again subjected to a strip search and a cell search where his property was destroyed. Officers also looked through Cook’s legal materials and asked him if he had communicated further with any Providence Journal reporters.