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Prisoner’s Oral Complaints Worthy of First Amendment Protection;

Prisoner's Oral Complaints Worthy of First Amendment Protection; 
$1 in Damages and $1.50 in Fees Awarded

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a prisoner's oral complaints about matters of "public concern" that are designed to "urge a change of any prison policy" are protected by the First Amendment.

Before the court were the cross-appeals of parties in a civil rights case filed by Illinois prisoner Alex Pearson. Those appeals resulted after an Illinois federal jury found the actions of prison social worker Kristen Kwasniewski and Tamms Correctional Center Warden George C. Welborn were retaliatory in nature, and awarded Pearson nominal damages of $1.00. Pearson appealed the district court's denial of his post-trial motion related to attorney fees, while Welborn and Kwasniewski appealed the jury verdict.

Pearson's complaint alleged that he received a retaliatory disciplinary "ticket" because of his complaints about conditions in the J-pod program at Tamms, and because he refused to be an informant against the Gangster Disciplines, a gang he had denounced affiliation with. In order to leave Tamms, such a denunciation was required.

Tamms is a lockdown prison that allows only one hour of "individualized recreation" in a 30-foot long, 15-foot wide partially-covered cement enclosure. Otherwise, 23-hour lockdown ensues. Prisoners must go through the J-pod program, a 30-day pre-transfer unit, before leaving Tamms. 

Prison officials encouraged prisoners to present their complaints and suggestions on how that program could be improved.

Among his complaints, Pearson objected to no outside recreation while in J-pod. He also complained about being shackled to others while sitting at a small table during group therapy. Those complaints were the same as issues raised by other prisoners; nevertheless, they upset prison officials. Warden Welborn questioned Pearson about his complaints, and finally told Pearson that if he ever sued him, he would never leave Tamms. Another problem faced by Pearson was prison officials' insistence that he assist with their internal investigation against the Gangster Disciples. 

On several occasions, Kwasniewski approached Pearson's cell while he was urinating. She wrote him a disciplinary "ticket" for masturbating. After the ticket stuck, despite Pearson's roommate verifying his urination defense, Pearson's release from Tamms was set back almost 18 months. That was the only disciplinary ticket Pearson received at Tamms, and it was issued just two days before he was to transfer to another facility.

The Seventh Circuit refused to hear Kwasniewski's arguments on appeal because they had not been presented in a post-trial motion in the district court. The appellate court also refused to comment on Welborn's contention that Pearson had no First Amendment right to refuse to be an informant. Because the jury's verdict was a combination finding on the informant claim and the oral complaints, the Seventh Circuit focused on the complaints.

The appeals court held that prisoners have a clear right to make complaints to effect a change in prison policy. Both oral and written complaints carry constitutional protection; to require a prisoner's complaints to be reduced to writing would give prison officials a free pass to retaliate for oral complaints. Thus, Welborn was not entitled to qualified immunity. 

Addressing Pearson's attorney fees issue, the Seventh Circuit concluded that the PLRA's fee cap provision (42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(2)) applied, which limited his attorney fees to 150% of the award of nominal damages, or $1.50. The district court's judgment was affirmed. See: Pearson v. Welborn, 471 F.3d 732 (7th Cir. 2006).

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Related legal case

Pearson v. Welborn