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Fifth Circuit: Wyoming Prisoner May Sue Texas Private Prison Officials

by Matt Clarke

On June 16, 2008, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Wyoming state prisoner housed at a privately-operated prison in Texas could sue private prison officials for retaliation and taking money from his trust account.

Roger D. Pfeil, a Wyoming prisoner incarcerated at the Bill Clayton Detention Center (BCDC) in Littlefield, Texas, had sent a letter to the Wyoming Department of Corrections complaining about prison conditions and asking to be returned to Wyoming. BCDC, a city-owned prison, was run by Correctional Services Corporation at the time (it was later managed by GEO Group).

Pfeil claimed that BCDC Lt. Reuben Torres charged him with a disciplinary violation for “reporting false or misleading information” for writing the letter. Pfeil had also testified at another prisoner’s disciplinary hearing. He alleged that the disciplinary actions were taken against him only because of his complaints to government officials about prison conditions and for testifying for the other prisoner. Pfeil was found guilty of the disciplinary infractions; he received 120 days in segregation, was no longer able to accrue future good-time credits, and was fined $50.

Pfeil filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights suit in federal district court against BCDC, Wyoming and City of Littlefield officials for alleged constitutional violations. The district court dismissed his suit as frivolous or for failure to state a claim, and Pfeil appealed.

The Fifth Circuit held that whereas most of the claims and defendants had been properly dismissed, Pfeil’s letter to the director of the Wyoming DOC complaining of prison conditions was a constitutionally-protected activity. Therefore, Pfeil had stated a cause of action for retaliation against the BCDC employees who wrote, investigated, testified in regard to and adjudicated the disciplinary infraction. Pfeil also had a protected interest in his prison trust account. Therefore, he alleged a property interest sufficient to support a due process claim for the seizure of $50 from his account as a disciplinary sanction.

However, because Wyoming prisoners have no liberty or property interest in their good-time credits, Pfeil’s claims related to his good time were properly dismissed. The remainder of his claims also were correctly dismissed, the Court of Appeals found. The case was remanded to the district court, where it remains pending against Torres and various other defendants. Wyoming removed its prisoners from BCDC in 2006. See: Pfeil v. Freudenthal, 281 Fed.Appx. 406 (5th Cir. 2008); 2008 U.S. App. LEXIS 12897.

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Related legal case

Pfeil v. Freudenthal