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Fifth Circuit: No Right to RDAP for Non-citizen Federal Prisoner

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held last year that a non-citizen federal prisoner had no constitutional right to participate in a substance abuse rehabilitation program that could reduce his sentence by up to a year.

Ricardo Gallegos-Hernandez, a federal prisoner and Mexican national who had an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainer lodged against him, filed a federal habeas corpus petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241, alleging that a Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) policy that excluded prisoners with ICE detainers from participating in and benefiting from the BOP’s Residential Drug Abuse Treatment Program (RDAP) under 28 U.S.C. §§ 3621 and 3624 violated his due process and equal protection rights.

The district court dismissed the habeas petition for lack of subject matter jurisdiction because the claims should have been brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, for failure to exhaust administrative remedies and for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Gallegos-Hernandez appealed.

The Fifth Circuit held that § 2241 was the proper statute to challenge the policy because participation in RDAP could reduce his imprisonment by one year. The Court of Appeals also held that Gallegos-Hernandez was not required to pursue administrative remedies as he was challenging the constitutionality of the policy, not its implementation, and because declaring the policy unconstitutional was not a remedy available through the administrative process. Therefore, attempting to exhaust administrative remedies would have been futile.

The appellate court found that § 3621 granted the BOP discretion in deciding whether to allow prisoners early release. Thus it did not create a liberty interest in early release, and failure to allow participation in a program that could lead to early release cannot be challenged under the due process clause.

Gallegos-Hernandez’s equal protection claim also failed. Non-citizen prisoners with ICE detainers are not an “identifiable group” with respect to being treated differently than other, similarly-situated prisoners. Non-citizens without ICE detainers are allowed to participate in RDAP, and some prisoners who are U.S. citizens are excluded from RDAP pursuant to BOP policy.

Further, the exclusion of non-citizen prisoners with ICE detainers is rationally related to the BOP’s legitimate interest in preventing such prisoners – whom the BOP considers high flight risks – from obtaining early release, due to the possibility that they will abscond when transferred to halfway houses as part of the community-based portion of RDAP. The Fifth Circuit therefore affirmed the judgment of the district court. See: Gallegos-Hernandez v. United States, 688 F.3d 190 (5th Cir. 2012), cert. denied.

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Related legal case

Gallegos-Hernandez v. United States