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Indiana Supreme Court Denies Relief to Prisoner Whose Commissary Account Was Garnished

by Casey J. Bastian

On May 19, 2021, the Court of Appeals of Indiana refused to dismiss a lower court’s ruling against a state prisoner whose prison account was garnished by the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to satisfy a restitution sanction of over $8,000 for injuries a guard sustained during an altercation with him three decades ago.

Aaron “Israel” Isby was originally remanded to DOC custody to serve a 30-year sentence for a 1989 robbery conviction. Court records reveal that he then was involved in an October 1990 altercation with DOC staff when, after he struck a prison counselor, guards entered his cell to move him to another location in the Pendleton Correctional Facility.

The cell-extraction team used dogs and tear gas to force Isby’s compliance. But DOC officials claim Isby wouldn’t comply and that he then stabbed two guards during the altercation. One was stabbed in the neck. Isby claims the attack upon him was staged and that he was simply defending himself. But the incident led to a conviction for attempted murder in 1992 and an additional 40-year sentence. DOC also imposed the restitution sanction for the guard’s injuries, withdrawing funds from his prison account to cover it.

Isby is not afraid of taking on DOC, having won a federal civil rights lawsuit he himself prosecuted, for violation of his due-process rights when he was kept in solitary confinement for over 28 years after the 1990 incident. See: Isby v. Brown, 856 F.3d 508 (7th Cir. 2017)

In 1991, Isby was also involved in a mass hunger strike that lasted for almost one month. That hunger strike led to a first-of-its-kind investigation into the practice of solitary confinement. Isby’s circumstances were examined in the Human Rights Watch report Cold Storage: Super-Maximum Solitary Confinement in Indiana.

He is currently seeking clemency due to the fact that his current attempted murder charge resulted in the imposition of an enhanced sentence now extinct because of another Indiana Supreme Court case, Smylie v. State, 823 N.E.2d 679 (Ind. 2005). Isby claims that he has been a target of DOC officials ever since the 1990 incident because he refused to submit to “racism, abuse, and inhumane conditions” within DOC.

Isby first sued DOC over the restitution sanction in LaPorte Superior Court in 1996, arguing that DOC lacked the authority to impose it. That suit was argued all the way to the state Supreme Court, where it was dismissed in 2007. See: Israel v. Ind. Dep’t of Corr., 868 N.E.2d 1123, 1124 (Ind. 2007).

The next time DOC officials removed funds from his account came after he was released from solitary, and Isby filed another complaint on May 18, 2020, asking for a cease and desist order to prevent DOC from removing the funds. The complaint claimed that DOC lacked the constitutional authority to impose a restitution sanction over $250 without a civil judgment to do so.

A Miami County judge dismissed the case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, basing the decision on Indiana Supreme Court precedent. The court did not rule on the merits of Isby’s complaint. Isby appealed. The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal. “We are bound to follow the authority of the Indiana Supreme Court,” the appeals court noted.

The Court found that Indiana Code § 11-11-5-3(5) specifically provides that DOC may impose a restitution sanction as part of any disciplinary proceedings. It also noted that Isby failed to cite any authority for his position, thereby waiving any such argument.

The court then discussed Indiana’s Administrative Orders and Procedures Act, which does allow for judicial review of agency actions except for “agency action related to an offender within the jurisdiction of the department of correction.” This language is found within Indiana Code § 4-21.5-2-5(6).

In a similar 2005 case, Blanck v. Indiana, the Indiana Supreme Court reviewed multiple statutes governing prison discipline and found that none of the statutes “confer[ed] subject matter jurisdiction over claims challenging judicial review of prison disciplinary decisions.” See: Blanck v. Ind. Dep’t of Corr., 829 N.E.2d 505 (Ind. 2005).

In deciding Isby’s case, the Court of Appeals noted that: “For a quarter-century our Court has held that DOC inmates have no common law, statutory, or federal constitutional right to review in state court DOC disciplinary decisions.” Therefore, Isby’s challenge to both the imposition, and collection of, restitution by DOC was exempt from state judicial review as agency actions related to an offender. As there is no jurisdiction, the complaint must be dismissed, the Court said. See: Isby v. State, 171 N.E.3d 654 (Ind. Ct. App. 2021).

Because there is no state court review of prison disciplinary hearings in Indiana, prisoners in that state can seek review in federal court without exhausting state court procedures which are not available. See: Johnson v. Finnan, 467 F.3d 693 (7th Cir. 2006).

Additional sources:,

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Related legal cases

Isby v. State

Isby v. Brown

Israel v. Ind. Dep’t of Corr.

Johnson v. Finnan

Blanck v. Ind. Dep’t of Corr.