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Wisconsin Supreme Court Upholds Disciplinary Result

By: David M. Reutter

The Supreme Court of Wisconsin held, on December 14, 2010 that a prison guard’s involvement in the investigation in an incident is not “substantial involvement” that violates the due process right to an impartial decision maker in a prison disciplinary hearing.

This case involved protracted litigation that began with a riot on November 11, 2004 at the New Lisbon Correction Institution. The incident involved three prisoners attacking several guards. The investigation resulted in two prisoners acting as confidential informants who gave witness statements against prisoner Darnell Jackson.

The informants said Jackson huddled up with the attackers who were in a gang that Jackson held a leadership role in and ordered the attack. A conduct report charged Jackson with inciting a riot and for group resistance. The riot charge was sustained with a penalty of 360 days segregation and his sentence being extended 179 days. He was found not guilty of group resistance.

Jackson filed administrative appeals and sought a writ of certiorari in Circuit Court after his administrative remedies were denied. When the prison had to file the disciplinary record, the warden ordered the adjustment committee to delete reference to a video. The Circuit and Appellate Courts both denied Jackson’s relief.

After the Supreme Court accepted review, it ordered the videos be entered into the record due to Jackson’s claim that they would undermine the confidential statements and they were exculpatory evidence. Ultimately, the Supreme Court held the videos neither confirmed nor refuted Jackson’s position that he never huddled with the assailants because the camera panned the area. Under the facts of this case, The Court said it “need not and do not determine whether any version of [Brady v. Maryland (and 373 U.S. 83 (1963)]—limited or otherwise—applies to prison disciplinary proceedings”.

The record before the Court of the involvement of Lt. Pamela Zank was sparse. Jackson said that she interviewed him after the riot and asked him to waive his hearing rights. She also was a decision maker on the adjustment committee. The interpretation of prison policy that prohibits a person who had “substantial involvement in an incident” from serving on the committee for a hearing on the matter was in dispute by the parties. The Court said the “sparse record” kept it from concluding “as a matter of law that Lt. Zank’s involvement in the incident was ‘substantial.’”

The lower court decisions were affirmed. A dissent by Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson concluded that a due process violation did occur and “majority meanders off course, distracting itself and the reader from the ‘focus of,’ and ‘the touchstone of,’ the inquiry” in making its erroneous conclusion. See: Jackson v. Buchler, 330 Wis.2d 279 (Wis. 2010).

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Related legal case

Jackson v. Buchler