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Federal Prisoner May Not be Held Indefinitely in Punitive Housing Pending Investigation of Infraction

Federal Prisoner May Not be Held Indefinitely in Punitive Housing Pending Investigation of Infraction

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York has held that a federal prisoner, removed from the general population and placed in administrative segregation (SHU) pending investigation of in-prison charges, could not be held in the SHU indefinitely as that would violate his rights proscribing pre-trial punitive detention.

Kenneth McGriff, a prisoner at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in New York, was alleged to be in possession of subscriber identity module (SIM) cards for cellular phones. Pending investigation by Bureau of Prisons (BOP) staff for rules violations, as well as possible prosecution by the U.S. Attorney’s office, McGriff was placed in the SHU. However, he complained that his continued months-long administrative detention violated his due process rights under Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979), which precludes punishment while a pre-trial detainee is still presumptively innocent.

McGriff sought relief from the punitive SHU conditions under the Bail Reform Act of 1984 (18 U.S.C. § 3141, et seq.). Because “bail” was not an appropriate remedy, the court treated his application as sounding in habeas corpus. The defendants argued that McGriff should have first exhausted administrative remedies under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA); however, the court noted that habeas petitions are not subject to the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement. Also, as to the judicial requirement that prisoners “exhaust their administrative remedies prior to filing a petition for habeas relief,” the district court decided to dispense with same. The court found that exhaustion in this case would be futile because the length of time to process an appeal would cause irreparable harm: McGriff’s administrative detention would likely expire before the appeal could be decided.

The court looked further into McGriff’s situation and found that after three months of pre-trial SHU detention, no investigation was yet being undertaken that would justify keeping him in such punitive housing conditions. Specifically, the BOP was not actively “investigating” his purported rules violations and the U.S. Attorney was not actively pursuing any criminal charges. In other words, McGriff’s indefinite SHU detention was entirely arbitrary.

It was precisely the indefiniteness of his punitive detention that formed the basis of the court’s ruling. While the court recognized the appropriateness of SHU detention pending an investigation, the defendants’ conclusory allegation that the investigation was “complex,” and that the government was “still in the process of retrieving information from the SIM cards,” swept too broadly to extinguish McGriff’s pre-trial detention due process rights.

“What the BOP may not do is leave McGriff in indefinite administrative detention based on a belief that further investigation might warrant further detention, and then fail to pursue that investigation,” the court stated. Accordingly, McGriff was ordered returned to the general prison population. See: United States v. McGriff, 468 F.Supp.2d 445 (E.D. N.Y. 2007).

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Related legal case

United States v. McGriff