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Seventh Circuit Reinstates Claim of Illinois Prisoner Held 18 Months After Release for Refusing to Sign Incomplete Form

by Matt Clarke

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” as former British Prime Minister William Gladstone famously said. On August 7, 2023, a former Illinois prisoner finally got a measure of justice for a botched release 13 years earlier. On that date, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reinstated his civil rights claim against a state prison official for holding him 18 months too long.

BenYehuda Whitfield II was imprisoned in 1996 for a home invasion. When he reached eligibility for mandatory supervised release (MSR) on January 7, 2010, “things went badly off the tracks,” as the Court recalled. A Clinical Services (CS) counselor at Menard Correctional Center gave him about a half dozen papers to sign, including the signature page of an “Electronic Detention Agreement Form” (EDAF), which stated in bold print that its “conditions apply only to sex offender case.”

Believing he was being set up to volunteer for electronic detention that wasn’t required, Whitfield told the counselor the form did not apply to him. When he was again instructed to sign, he demanded to see the entire form, not just the signature page. That demand was also ignored; instead CS supervisor Betsy Spiller stepped in and warned his refusal to sign would put him in violation of his MSR.

In all, Whitfield was ordered to sign the EDAF four times that day. Each time he refused and asked for an explanation. As it turned out, he was correct that there was no statutory requirement for his signature, but incorrect about not being required to submit electronic detention. Nevertheless, without that explanation nor even the rest of the form, he refused to sign it and received a disciplinary ticket. Instead of being released, he was taken to disciplinary segregation (DS). After six days there, an Adjustment Board found him guilty of the disciplinary charge, and he spent a total of more than four months in DS.

While in DS, he signed the EDAF. So when a revocation hearing was held by the Illinois Prisoner Review Board—which makes parole determinations—his release eligibility was not revoked. Nor was it revoked at a second hearing. But it was revoked at a third hearing held eight months after the incident. Whitfield ended up spending an additional 18 months in prison, and he was never released to MSR.

Whitfield then filed a pro se federal civil rights lawsuit in federal court for the Southern District of Illinois against Spiller, prison Warden William Gaetz and other prison staff, as well as parole board members, alleging violations of his First, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The district court granted summary judgment to most defendants based on their lack of personal involvement, except the parole board members,.

The case then went to trial in January 2018, when Whitfield won a $50,000 jury verdict against parole board members Eric Althoff, Milton Maxwell and Angelia Blackman-Donovan. They proceeded to reach an undocketed settlement with Whitfield, who then appealed the grant of summary judgment in favor of Spiller and Gaetz.

To represent him on appeal, the Seventh Circuit appointed attorneys Hille R. Shepard, Christopher D. Batdorf-Barnes and Rebecca M. Lewis of Sidney Austin LLP in Chicago. The attorneys argued only Whitfield’s First and Eighth Amendment claims, forfeiting the others. The Court determined that Gaetz had too little personal involvement to be held liable. However, it found a triable fact issue existed regarding Spiller’s personal involvement in the disciplinary ticket that put Whitfield in DS for the first six days.

Spiller had other options, the Court noted: to seek guidance from supervisors or legal personnel for answers to his questions, or to place him in general population until they could be answered. But she chose to punish him instead. This made out a prima facie case of retaliation, which was unaffected by the fact that some of Whitfield’s beliefs were in error; as the Court noted, even “false speech” may enjoy First Amendment protection, per Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974). Therefore, judgment was reversed on Whitfield’s First Amendment claim against Spiller, though affirmed on all other claims.

In a lengthy dissent, Justice Michael B. Brennan chided the majority for holding Spiller accountable for Whitfield’s placement in DS because she didn’t sign his disciplinary ticket—though it wouldn’t have been written without her order. Whitfield may have engaged in protected activity when he expressed his reasons for refusing to sign the incomplete form, Brennan allowed, but it was his refusal which motivated Spiller, not his reasons, so the justice thought that should take her off the hook. See: Whitfield v. Spiller, 76 F.4th 698 (7th Cir. 2023).

The case has now returned to the district court, where Whitfield is once again proceeding pro se. Tortured reasoning like Brennans’ may yet doom his case, of course. Meanwhile, in the lengthy period since he was robbed of a year and a half of freedom, Whitfield has completed a degree in applied behavioral science, and he now works as Lead Counselor at Human Resources Development Institute in Calumet City, according to his LinkedIn profile. PLN will update developments in his case as they are available. See: Whitfield v. Spiller, USDC (S.D. Ill.), Case No. 3:13-cv-00653.  


Additional source: LinkedIn

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Related legal case

Whitfield v. Spiller