Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Tenth Circuit: Terrorism Prisoners Lack Liberty Interest in Transfer to ADX

Omar Rezaq, Mohammed Saleh, El-Sayyid Nosair and Ibrahim Elgabrowny, convicted of terrorism-related offenses and confined at the federal supermax ADX facility in Florence, Colorado, filed suit contending they had a liberty interest in “avoiding transfer without due process to the high-security prison.” The district court denied relief, which was affirmed by the Tenth Circuit on April 20, 2012.

ADX, according to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), serves two primary penological interests: 1) “maintaining the safety of both staff and inmates, while eliminating the need to increase the security of other penitentiaries,” and 2) “confin[ing] prisoners under close controls while providing them opportunities to demonstrate progressively responsible behavior ... and establish readiness for transfer to a less secure institution.”

In this case the plaintiffs were transferred to ADX from a U.S. Penitentiary, itself a high-security facility, but during the course of the litigation were moved from ADX to one of the BOP’s two Communications Management Units (CMUs). The CMUs are located in Marion, Illinois and Terre Haute, Indiana. [See: PLN, Sept. 2012, p.26]. While CMUs are also highly-controlled, they include the added feature of heavily-restricted communications with the outside world.

The plaintiffs’ complaints, later consolidated into one case before the Tenth Circuit, revolved around the lack of hearings before the plaintiffs were transferred to ADX.
Subsequent to the filing of the lawsuits, the BOP regional director issued new procedures for future transfers to ADX which included hearings. Those procedures provided for prisoners to receive notice of the transfer hearing, an opportunity to participate in the hearing, a written recommendation by the hearing officer and administrative review of the regional director’s decision by the BOP’s general counsel. Retroactive hearings were held with respect to the plaintiffs, all of which found their transfers to ADX to be appropriate.

The plaintiffs asserted due process violations and argued that the retroactive transfer hearings did not cure those violations. The defendants – including the BOP, the U.S. Attorney General, the BOP regional director and various other BOP officials – moved for summary judgment, which was granted by the district court.

Applying the four factors from Estate of DiMarco v. Wyoming Department of Corrections, 473 F.3d 1334 (10th Cir. 2007), the district court concluded that a liberty interest did not attach. The court found that the plaintiffs’ transfers to ADX were for “legitimate safety issues,” and that “conditions of confinement at ADX were not extreme.” Distinguishing the case of Wilkinson v. Austin, 545 U.S. 209 (2005) [PLN, Aug. 2005, p.24], which the plaintiffs heavily relied upon, the court concluded that while highly restrictive, ADX did not have the same conditions at issue in Wilkinson, which involved Ohio’s supermax facility.

The plaintiffs had supported their liberty interest claims by arguing that ADX was a facility that created an “atypical and significant hardship ... in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life” pursuant to Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 484 (1995). They further averred that the district court had given too much weight to the BOP’s penological interest; improperly compared the conditions of confinement in Wilkinson to those at ADX; and relied upon “inapposite precedent, thus ‘erroneously elevating the standard for determining whether the challenged conditions were extreme,’ and ‘not considering the extraordinary length of [the plaintiffs’] segregation.’”

On appeal, the Tenth Circuit noted that “A liberty interest may arise from the Constitution itself, by reason of guarantees implicit in the word ‘liberty,’ or it may arise from an expectation or interest created by state laws or policies,’ citing Wilkinson. “In the penological context, not every deprivation of liberty at the hands of prison officials has constitutional dimension ... because incarcerated persons retain only a ‘narrow range of protected liberty interests,’” the appellate court wrote. “For example, the Supreme Court has recognized that the ‘Constitution itself does not give rise to a liberty interest in avoiding transfer to more adverse conditions of confinement.’”

The Court of Appeals narrowed the issue to whether a prisoner suffers an “atypical and significant hardship ... in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life,” based on Sandin. The focus was not on the harshness of conditions at ADX, but “whether the segregation at issue mirrors that imposed on other inmates in the same segregation,” citing Gaines v. Stenseng, 292 F.3d 1222, 1225-26 (10th Cir. 2002) [PLN, June 2003, p.24].

The appellate court recognized the divergence of other circuits on the issue, but held that “we continue to believe that the proper approach is a fact-driven assessment that accounts for the totality of conditions presented by a given inmate’s sentence and confinement. While the Supreme Court’s assessment of the conditions in Wilkinson can be instructive in this endeavor, the conditions in that case may not serve as helpful comparator evidence in all cases.... Here, each of the plaintiffs was transferred to ADX for reasons of national security and institutional safety.”

The Court of Appeals also concluded that, as in DiMarco, they must “remain mindful of the primary management role of prison officials who should be free from second-guessing or micro-management from the federal courts.” Accordingly, the Court held the plaintiffs “did not have a liberty interest in avoiding confinement at ADX,” and “[b]ecause no liberty interest is implicated, we do not reach the question of whether the inmates received adequate process to justify their transfers to ADX.”

The Tenth Circuit did, however, reject the BOP’s argument that the underlying controversy was moot based on the fact that the plaintiffs were no longer housed at ADX when the case was decided, finding the BOP could still transfer them back to ADX at some future date. See: Rezaq v. Nalley, 677 F.3d 1001 (10th Cir. 2012).

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal cases

Rezaq v. Nalley

Estate of DiMarco v. Wyoming Department of Corrections