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California Court Vacates Prison Infraction Charging Prisoner for Refusing Meals

by Lonnie Burton

The California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, Division Two, has invalidated a prison infraction that charged a hunger-striking prisoner with “participating in a riot, rout, or unlawful assembly,” as it was unsupported by “some evidence.” The ruling reversed the finding of a prison hearings officer made nearly three years earlier.

Jorge Gomez was incarcerated at Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU), in segregation. Allegedly a gang member, Gomez was housed in the SHU for more than a decade before he began refusing meals on July 8, 2013 as part of what prison officials called a state-wide mass hunger strike organized by SHU prisoners.

When a sergeant noted that Gomez had refused nine consecutive meals over three days, he was issued an infraction report charging him with rules violations. He was charged with “willfully delaying a peace officer by participating in a mass hunger strike,” and participating in a riot or causing disorder in the prison. Both of the charges were based solely on his refusal to eat.

The hearings officer found Gomez guilty of the infraction, writing that Gomez had pleaded guilty and the record showed he refused nine consecutive meals.

On appeal, Gomez claimed he only pleaded “guilty” to refusing the meals, not to the charges themselves. He also argued that the hearings officer’s findings were insufficient to support a finding of guilt, and there was no evidence to support a conclusion that his actions interfered with staff or caused a riot or disorder in the prison.

After Gomez’s administrative appeals were denied he filed a habeas petition in Del Norte County Superior Court, seeking restoration of the 90 days of good time he lost as a sanction. When the court summarily dismissed his petition, Gomez sought relief in the Court of Appeal. In reversing the infraction and ordering restoration of Gomez’s lost good time, the appellate court focused on whether there was “some evidence” to support the finding of guilt. Based upon that standard, a prison disciplinary action cannot stand if there is not some evidence in the record to support the infraction.

The Court of Appeal held there was simply no evidence presented at the disciplinary hearing to show that Gomez had either 1) pleaded guilty to the violation, or 2) “engaged in behavior that might lead to disorder that endangers” prison operations. In so holding, the Court rejected prison officials’ arguments that when a prisoner goes on a hunger strike it takes extra staff time to monitor them, thus diverting staff away from their duties, and that Gomez’s actions contributed to “significant disruptions in the normal operations of the institution.”

“None of these contentions indicate that the facility (or any person) was endangered, i.e., put in danger or peril of harm or loss” due to Gomez’s refusal to eat, the appellate court wrote. Nor was there any indication “that there was a breakdown of order in any aspect of” prison operations, as prison officials’ response to Gomez’s hunger strike was completely within their discretion. As such, the Court of Appeal held there was no evidence that Gomez did anything other than refuse to eat, and therefore reversed the disciplinary conviction.

Gomez also raised a First Amendment free speech challenge, which the Court declined to address since it reversed on other grounds. The appellate court ordered Pelican Bay officials to restore Gomez’s 90 days of good conduct credits and expunge all references of the infraction from his central file. The decision was published on April 22, 2016. See: In re Jorge A. Gomez, 246 Cal. App. 4th 1082, 201 Cal. Rptr. 3d 124 (Cal.App.1st Dist. 2016).

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Related legal case

In re Jorge A. Gomez