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Pennsylvania Prisoner Given Belt, Then Punished for Having It

by David M. Reutter

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania found it lacked jurisdiction in a case brought by a prisoner who was issued a belt and then later punished for possessing it. Dissenting judges called the disciplinary action taken by prison officials “Kafkaesque.”

While housed at SCI-Fayette, Albert Dantzler was issued a belt by prison staff. When he was transferred in December 2017 to SCI-Houtzdale, he still had the belt and his property was found to be free of contraband. His cell was searched twice in January 2018 with the same result.

At some point, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) revised its policies regarding prisoner clothing without notifying Dantzler about the change. In April 2018, a guard confronted Dantzler and informed him he was not allowed to have a belt. Dantzler received a misconduct report for possession of contraband and was subsequently found guilty.

After exhausting his administrative remedies, he filed a petition with the court, alleging the DOC’s actions violated his due process rights under the Pennsylvania Constitution. The defendants moved to dismiss, arguing the court had neither appellate nor original jurisdiction. With little discussion, the court agreed it lacked jurisdiction to act in its appellate capacity of a DOC misconduct hearing.

As to Dantzler’s due process claim, the court held that the DOC’s misconduct decisions generally fall outside its original jurisdiction. This, the court said, is true even where a prisoner’s constitutional rights were allegedly violated, because “incarceration brings about the necessary withdrawal or limitation of many privileges and rights, a retraction justified by the considerations underlying our penal system.”

The Commonwealth Court wrote it had previously found that, “If a prisoner had no protected liberty interest in remaining free of disciplinary custody, then the state owes him no process before putting him in disciplinary confinement.” As Dantzler was sentenced to 30 days’ cell confinement, he did not suffer an atypical and significant hardship in relation to the normal incidents of prison life, as required by Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472 (1995). Accordingly, the court dismissed his petition in its September 19, 2019 ruling.

In a dissent, Judge Ellen Ceisler, joined by Judge Mary H. Leavitt, called the DOC’s actions in this case “Kafkaesque.” She argued prison officials “cannot simply alter the rules without notice and then punish unwittingly noncompliant prisoners without running afoul of constitutionally protected due process rights,” which was, in fact, what had happened to Dantzler. She was also critical of the precedent set in this case.

“The majority’s decision essentially gives the [DOC] license to operate as a Star Chamber of sorts, secure in the knowledge that its handling of misconduct matters is effectively immune from judicial review, no matter how capriciously it chooses to alter or promulgate its internal regulations, or punish those members of society over which it maintains custodial control.” See: Dantzler v. Wetzel, 218 A.3d 519 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2019); 2019 Pa. Commw. LEXIS 859. 


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Related legal case

Dantzler v. Wetzel