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Tenth Circuit Holds Due Process Requires Meaningful Segregation Reviews

Prisoners indefinitely confined to administrative segregation are entitled to meaningful, periodic reviews of their segregation status, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held on June 20, 2011, while granting qualified immunity to the prison official defendants. The appellate court issued an amended opinion in April 2012; however, the outcome remained the same.

Colorado state prisoner Janos Toevs filed suit against prison officials in federal court, arguing that he was denied due process while participating in the Colorado DOC’s Quality of Life Level Program (QLLP). The QLLP is a behavioral modification program that uses administrative segregation in conjunction with a tiered system of privileges to promote improved behavior among “problem” prisoners.

The QLLP has six levels. Level 1, the most restrictive, offers little to no privileges. As prisoners progressively move through each level, more privileges are afforded. After completing Level 6, QLLP participants are eligible for return to the general prison population. There is no maximum amount of time a prisoner can spend at each level, but there are minimums; it takes at least thirteen months and seven days to complete the QLLP.

Toevs was placed in the QLLP after attempting to escape in 2002. While in Levels 1 to 3, he received regular segregation reviews. During the reviews, though, Toevs was “never informed ... of the reasons why he was recommended for or denied progression [in the QLLP], so that he would have a guide for his future behavior.” He received no reviews while in Levels 4 to 6.

Toevs argued that he was denied due process because his segregation reviews in Levels 1 to 3 were not meaningful, and because he was afforded no reviews in Levels 4 through 6. The district court found no due process violations and granted summary judgment to the defendants on the basis of qualified immunity. Toevs appealed.

As with all due process claims in the prison context, the Court of Appeals began by assessing whether Toevs’ placement in the QLLP implicated a protected liberty interest. In this case, the appellate court held that it did. The conditions of confinement associated with the QLLP – confinement to a solitary cell for 23 hours a day and limited privileges – when combined with the potentially indefinite nature of the program “established a protected liberty interest.”

Because a liberty interest was implicated, the Tenth Circuit held that Toevs was entitled to meaningful reviews of his segregation status, citing Hewitt v. Helms, 459 U.S. 460, 477 n.9 (1983). The appellate court then proceeded to define what constituted meaningful.

For one, meaningful review is one that is not a “sham or a pretext.” In the context of traditional administrative segregation, where the choice is either to retain prisoners in segregation or release them to the general population, the review must be “capable of releasing the inmate into the general population.”

However, with stratified incentive programs like the QLLP, the concept of “meaningful” is different, the Court of Ap-peals wrote. “Where ... the goal of the placement is behavior modification, the review should provide a guide for future behavior.”

In Toevs’ case, the appellate court held that he was denied meaningful reviews in Levels 1 to 3 because “the reviews never informed Toevs of the reasons why he was recommended for or denied progression, so that he would have a guide for his future behavior.” Further, the complete denial of reviews in Levels 4 through 6 was plainly unlawful.

The defendants had argued that reviews were not required for Levels 4 to 6 because prisoners in those levels in the QLLP were in “close custody” rather than administrative segregation. But since the “basic conditions of confinement [are] the same for all QLLP levels,” the Tenth Circuit said it saw “no reason why Levels 4 though 6 would be exempt from Hewitt’s prescription of periodic review.”

While the Court of Appeals found that Toevs’ due process rights had been violated, summary judgment for the defendants was upheld because the law regarding what constituted a “meaningful” segregation review in “stratified behavior-modification” programs such as the QLLP was not clearly established at the time of the events described in Toevs’ complaint, from 2005 to 2009. Thus, the appellate court concluded, the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. See: Toevs v. Reid, 646 F.3d 752 (10th Cir. 2011).

The defendants moved for rehearing, which was granted by the appellate court. On April 2, 2012, upon rehearing, the Tenth Circuit issued an amended and superseding opinion that reached the same conclusion as the panel’s original decision.

“Based on the record and the arguments before this court, Mr. Toevs was entitled to meaningful periodic reviews during his placement in administrative segregation in the Colorado prison system’s Quality of Life Level Program (QLLP) because the exclusive justification for keeping Mr. Toevs in administrative segregation was to influence him to modify his future behavior,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “However, the record at this state of the proceeding does not establish that Mr. Toevs was given meaningful reviews....
On the merits, it was certainly error to grant summary judgment to defendants on this issue. Nevertheless, because at the time it was not clearly established that the review process should apply throughout each level of the QLLP and that the perfunctory reviews given to Mr. Toevs at Levels 1-3 and the failure to provide any reviews whatsoever at Levels 4-6 would not be considered meaningful given the rehabilitative justification for this segregation program, we conclude that defendants are entitled to qualified immunity.”

Toevs litigated the case pro se, including on appeal, and the Tenth Circuit complimented him for “filing appellate briefs that clearly articulate his arguments and ably discuss the applicable precedents,” despite the end result. See: Toevs v. Reid, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, Case No. 10-1535; 2012 WL 1085802.

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Related legal cases

Toevs v. Reid

Hewitt v. Helms