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Third Circuit: § 2241 is Proper Vehicle for BOP IFRP Challenges

Third Circuit: § 2241 is Proper Vehicle for BOP IFRP Challenges

by Mark Wilson

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals held on December 2, 2010 that a federal habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 is the proper vehicle to challenge the Bureau of Prison’s (BOP) Inmate Financial Responsibility Plan (IFRP). Following remand, a Pennsylvania U.S. District Court granted partial habeas relief in November 2011.

Steven A. McGee was convicted of federal drug charges and sentenced to 120 months in prison and a $10,000 fine. Due to his indigence, the court ordered that McGee pay the fine from his prison earnings at a rate of $20 per month.

In 2004 or 2005, McGee was placed in the IFRP. “He agreed to pay a minimum of $25 per quarter toward his fine in exchange for not (1) being limited to spending $25 per month in the commissary, (2) being ineligible for placement in a halfway house prior to his release, (3) receiving an increased security designation, and (4) receiving an undesirable housing designation.” Other consequences for refusing the IFRP were possible under 28 CFR § 545.11(d)(1)-(11).

The BOP later requested that McGee “increase the payments to $75 per quarter, apparently because ... he had a substantial sum of money in his bank account.” McGee claimed he had borrowed the money to pay his legal fees. “He refused to agree to the increase and was placed on ‘IFRP refusal status,’ which limited his commissary spending to $25 per month – not enough to meet his needs as he pursue[d] habeas relief from the judgment against him.”

McGee then filed a § 2241 action, challenging his court access impairment by virtue of the IFRP commissary restrictions, including an inability to make sufficient photocopies due to the restrictions. However, “the district court sua sponte dismissed the action without prejudice ..., concluding that because it challenged the conditions of McGee’s confinement it should have been filed as a civil rights action.” McGee appealed.

Following Learner v. Fauver, 288 F.3d 532 (3d Cir. 2002) and Woodall v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 432 F.3d 235 (3d Cir. 2005), the Third Circuit found that in deciding whether § 2241 or § 1983 is the appropriate vehicle, the determining question is “whether granting the petition would ‘necessarily imply’ a change to the fact, duration, or execution of the petitioner’s sentence.”

McGee’s “petition is, at bottom, a challenge to the IFRP and its requirement that McGee pay $75 per quarter when his sentence (i) requires only $20 per month (i.e., $60 per quarter), and (ii) specifically directs that such payments be made out of his prison earnings (which allegedly come to substantially less than $75 per quarter).”

The appellate court agreed with opinions from the Fifth and Eighth Circuits which found that IFRP challenges are properly brought under § 2241. See, e.g., United States v. Diggs, 578 F.3d 318 (5th Cir. 2009) and Matheny v. Morrison, 307 F.3d 709 (8th Cir. 2002). “The IFRP payment schedule and the sanctions imposed for noncompliance are part of the execution of McGee’s sentence,” the Court of Appeals held. Therefore, “the claim that they are illegal and invalid falls under the rubric of a § 2241 habeas petition.” The case was therefore reversed and remanded for further proceedings. See: McGee v. Martinez, 627 F.3d 933 (3d Cir. 2010).

Following remand, the district court entered a memorandum order on November 17, 2011 that explained, “As a result of the IFRP refusal designation, McGee avers that he has been subjected to institutional sanctions, including being restricted to ‘$25.00 a month total commissary spending’.... This commissary restriction has purportedly denied Petitioner the ability to photocopy legal records which he wishes to file as exhibits” in a separate habeas action challenging his federal criminal conviction.

While the court acknowledged that the IFRP was constitutional based on Third Circuit precedent, it found that the “issue in the present matter is whether the BOP’s implementation of the IFRP with respect to the payment terms imposed on McGee conflicted with the directives set forth by the sentencing court.”

According to the evidence presented in the case, the BOP had ordered McGee to make IFRP payments in an amount greater than that ordered as part of his sentence, and the respondents did “not offer any argument or authority which would support a determination that the BOP had either the authority or discretion to exceed the installment payment amounts imposed by the” sentencing court.

The district court therefore granted McGee’s petition for habeas corpus relief in part, and remanded the IFRP issue “to the BOP with instruction to recalculate McGee’s IFRP payment contract in complete accordance with the directives of the sentencing court.”
However, the court denied McGee’s access-to-court claim relative to his inability to make photocopies needed for his legal work due to the IFRP spending restrictions imposed by the BOP. See: McGee v. Martinez, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:08-cv-01663; 2011 WL 5599338.

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