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Seventh Circuit Affirms Use Of “Some Evidence” Standard in Reviewing Federal Prisoner’s Disciplinary Violations

by Anthony W. Accurso

In an opinion reached on December 6, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld a district court’s ruling that a federal prisoner’s disciplinary sanctions were valid so long as there was “some evidence” to support the underlying violations. Importantly, where the evidence is a guard’s statement, the Court said the prisoner could not raise a dispute except with clear evidence that those statements were falsified intentionally.

The prisoner, Roscoe Chambers, was sanctioned with loss of good time for alleged rules violations in two separate incidents in 2018 and 2019 at the U.S. Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

In the first incident, he lost 41 days of good-conduct time for refusing to provide a urine sample and being disobedient and insolent towards staff. Chambers argued he was never asked for a sample and even pointed to surveillance video showing the guard who allegedly made the request did not have a urine collection cup when he approached the prisoner’s cell. Nevertheless, a Disciplinary Hearing Officer (DHO) credited the charging guard’s statement.

Separately, Chambers lost another 27 days of good-conduct time for kicking his cell door until it activated an alarm bell, in violation of Prohibited Act Code 208 for interfering with a security device. Chambers claimed he was attempting to report pain he was suffering following a dental procedure. Again, the DHO credited a guard’s statement that Chambers admitted “he was not in distress or having a medical emergency when he kicked his cell door.”

Chambers then filed two suits pro se in federal court for the Northern District of Illinois—since he had by then been transferred to the U.S. Penitentiary in Thomson—proceeding under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 to accuse officials with the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) of violating his Fourteenth Amendment due-process rights with each sanction. The district court denied both complaints, and on appeal, the Seventh Circuit consolidated them into one case.

The Court began by noting that the district court “concluded that the disciplinary determinations were supported by sufficient evidence,” meaning incident reports from both violations that “supported Chambers’ guilt.”

Chambers had objected that he wasn’t allowed to call witnesses to corroborate that his mouth was hurting. But the Court said that wouldn’t disprove that he kicked off the alarm, so he “had no due-process right to call witnesses whose testimony would be repetitive and irrelevant,” and the “[district] court was correct that prison officials may deny access to witnesses whose testimony would be irrelevant,” citing Pannell v. McBride, 306 F.3d 499 (7th Cir. 2002).

Chambers also challenged the fact that the disciplinary process was conducted by just one BOP staffer and not two. But the Court said only one was required under BOP policies governing initial review “to refer high-severity violations like Chambers’s” to a DHO.

The Assistant U.S. Attorney who served as the warden’s counsel had responded to Chamber’s complaint without authorization, the prisoner further argued, in violation of 28 C.F.R. § 50.15. But the Court said that Chambers “introduced no evidence that counsel appeared without authorization” in the first case, and in the second case, the DHO “was not involved in Chambers’s prior suit” and Chambers failed to introduce “any other evidence of bias.”

Thus the Court affirmed the district court’s application of Superintendent, Mass. Corr. Inst. v. Hill, 472 U.S. 445, (1985), which held that “[f]ederal courts must affirm prison disciplinary decisions if they are supported by ‘some evidence,’” since here the Court agreed that “the incident reports sufficed to clear that low… bar.”

In other words, guards’ statements were sufficient for a DHO to find that Chambers refused a direct order to submit to a urinalysis and that he interfered with a security device, regardless of any other evidence he may have brought to bear on the inquiry except that guards falsified their statements. Absent any clear evidence of that, their accounts were more credible than Chambers’, the Court said.

In affirming the rulings of the district court to deny his motions, the Court also warned Chambers, “a frequent litigant,” that he “risks monetary sanctions if he continues to repeat in future cases these arguments that we have found to be frivolous.”

Chambers’ claims originated at a prison with a reputation for abuse and corruption. [See: PLN, Apr. 2017, p.16; and Sep. 2018, p.13.] Though he argued that easily obtainable evidence clearly contradicted the guards’ statements on which his violations were based, the Court expressed unwillingness to undertake such a meaningful review of prison disciplinary violations. See: Chambers v. Ciolli, 19 F.4th 984 (7th Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal case

Chambers v. Ciolli