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South Carolina Supreme Court Denies Prisoner’s Challenge to DOC Policy Restricting Visitors to People He Knew Before Incarceration

by Douglas Ankney

On April 5, 2023, the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed that denying a state prisoner visits from people he didn’t know prior to incarceration did not implicate any liberty interest created by the state – so he was not entitled to relief when his grievance over the matter was denied by the state Department of Corrections (DOC).

The case was brought by Quincy Allen, a prisoner whose death sentence was tossed in July 2022 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, citing its “grave doubt that the state court’s errors” in failing to consider evidence of his mental illness “did not have a substantial and injurious effect.” See: Allen v. Stephan, 42 F.4th 223 (4th Cir. 2022).

That moved Allen off death row, and he is now serving a life sentence. But it didn’t fundamentally change the subject of his grievance to a DOC policy restricting visitors to people he knew prior to incarceration – a pool destined to shrink with every passing year. Allen grieved the matter, and when DOC denied his grievance, he filed an appeal, arguing that he had a state-created liberty interest in rehabilitation which was negatively impacted.

The Administrative Law Court (ALC) found no due-process violation, though. So Allen went to the state Court of Appeals, which analyzed his claim as one of subject-matter jurisdiction and affirmed the ALC’s order. The state Supreme Court then granted Allen’s petition for writ of certiorari.

The Court began by observing that “ALC has subject matter jurisdiction to review a final decision of an administrative agency” like DOC, per S.C. Code Ann. section 1-23-600(D). Moreover, as held in Al-Shabazz v. State, 527 S.E.2d 742 (S.C. 2000), grievance resolutions are “administrative matters” that “are subject to review under the APA [Administrative Procedure Act, S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23].”

However, APA provisions do not apply “to the internal prison disciplinary or decision-making process,” per Al-Shabazz. Rather, “requirements of procedural due process apply only to the deprivation of interests encompassed by the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection of liberty and property,” the Court continued, so a prisoner “must allege the denial of a state-created liberty interest to be entitled to relief for the denial of his due process rights.”

In Sullivan v. S.C. Dep’t of Corr., 586 S.E.2d 124 (S.C. 2003), the Court had held that “the only way for [ALC] to obtain subject matter jurisdiction over [a prisoner’s] claim is if it implicates a state-created liberty interest.” The Court said the analysis of the issue as “one of ‘subject matter jurisdiction,’ which has been repeated in several cases, was mistaken.”

The Court clarified that ALC “has subject matter jurisdiction over inmate grievance appeals that have been properly filed,” per Slezak v. S.C. Dep’t of Corr., 361 S.C. 327 (2004). But a “claim that implicates a state-created liberty or property interest is not required.” ALC is also “not required to hold a hearing in every matter and may summarily dismiss” a grievance that fails to “implicate a state-created liberty or property interest sufficient to trigger procedural due process guarantees.” Moreover, ALC may not grant relief from “an erroneous administrative decision” without demonstrating that “the error deprived [the prisoner] of due process.”

The Court of Appeals had decided that denying Allen visitation from people not known to him prior to incarceration did not implicate a state-created liberty interest, and the Supreme Court agreed. Dismissal of the prisoner’s appeal was therefore affirmed. Allen was represented at the Court by attorney E. Charles Grose, Jr. of the Grose Law Firm in Greenwood. See: Allen v. S.C. Dep’t of Corr., 439 S.C. 164 (2023).  

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Related legal case

Allen v. S.C. Dep’t of Corr.