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Prisoner Education Guide

Articles by Derek Gilna

Seventh Circuit Vacates, Remands Punitive Damages Award Against Wexford

by Derek Gilna

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has remanded a prisoner’s lawsuit against Wexford Health Sources, Inc., the healthcare provider for Illinois’ Department of Corrections, for either a reduced punitive damages award or a new trial on the issue of damages. 

After experiencing ankle pain in 2010, prisoner Donald E. Beard, Jr. filed suit claiming that he was denied proper treatment from Wexford and its staff. 

Beard’s pro se complaint alleged “that members of the prison’s medical staff and administrative team were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical need in violation of the Eighth Amendment (applied to the states through the Fourteenth), and he sought damages plus injunctive relief. The district court recruited counsel, who added Wexford as a defendant and stipulated to the dismissal of the individual defendants.” 

The case went to trial and the jury awarded Beard $10,000 in compensatory damages plus $500,000 in punitive damages. However, the district court reduced the punitive award to $50,000, finding it was excessive and arbitrary, contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment. Beard appealed.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that “few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages ...

Seventh Circuit Excuses Exhaustion Requirement for Spanish-Speaking Prisoner

by Derek Gilna

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed the dismissal of an Illinois state prisoner’s 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit for failure to exhaust administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), based on the fact that as a Spanish-speaker he did not understand the grievance procedure.

Darwin Ramirez alleged that he was unable to file complaints at the Western Illinois Correctional Center, and in its October 9, 2018 opinion the Seventh Circuit agreed that prison officials did not give him an opportunity to file his grievances; therefore, his failure to exhaust was excused. 

According to the appellate ruling, “In 2011, Ramirez’s cellmate threatened him with a shank. Ramirez tried to tell a correctional officer about the incident, but the language barrier prevented him from describing what had occurred. As a result, the officer directed Ramirez to return to his cell. When Ramirez refused to do so, he was placed in segregation.” 

Ramirez complained that prison staff failed to take his cellmate’s threat and other threats against him seriously, and that he was unable to communicate with prison medical staff about his health issues due to his lack of ...

Illinois DOC Permanently Enjoined From Neglecting Prisoners’ Mental Health

by Derek Gilna

On October 30, 2018, a federal judge entered a permanent injunction that enjoined the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) from violating the Eighth Amendment and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with respect to mental health care.

In issuing the injunction, the district court found the IDOC had ...

Eighteen Years After its Passage, Prisons and Jails Continue to Violate RLUIPA

by Derek Gilna

After decades of complaints by prisoners that corrections officials frequently denied them the right to practice their religion, Congress took action and passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), codified at 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), RLUIPA “is a civil rights law that protects the religious freedom of persons confined to prisons, jails, and certain other institutions in which the government exerts a degree of control far greater than that which is found in civilian society.” 

As noted by the DOJ, “[a]fter hearings in which Congress found that persons residing in institutions are sometimes subject to discriminatory or arbitrary denial of the ability to practice their faiths beyond what is needed for the security and proper functioning of the institution, Congress passed RLUIPA unanimously in 2000. President Clinton signed RLUIPA into law on September 22, 2000.”

During debate on the legislation, U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy acknowledged what criminal justice experts had been saying for years: “[s]incere faith and worship can be an indispensable part of rehabilitation.” 

The DOJ has issued guidance on the parameters ...

Missouri Prisoner Awarded $111,000 in Second-Hand Smoke Case, DOC Bans Smoking

by Derek Gilna

Ecclesiastical Denzel Washington, a former death row prisoner who is now serving a life sentence, won a jury verdict against the Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC) and various prison officials totaling $111,000. Following the April 2017 verdict, Washington negotiated a settlement banning the sale and consumption of tobacco and tobacco products in state prisons.

His lawsuit alleged that Missouri DOC officials subjected him to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment by ignoring his individual medical management plan, which “required that he be placed in [a] smoke-free environment.” Washington claimed that being housed with smokers exacerbated his asthma and bronchitis.

He attached to his pro se complaint an article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which referenced a study by the U.S. Surgeon General entitled, “There is no safe level of secondhand smoke.” Washington meticulously recorded every time prison staff failed to provide him the living environment that his health and their own policies required, and informed DOC officials that the smoking policies at the Crossroads Correctional Center – which prohibited prisoners from smoking inside their housing units – were not being followed. His complaints were ignored and he was ...

Sixth Circuit Reverses Injunction Against Delousing and Group Strip Searches at Ohio Jail

by Derek Gilna

On November 2, 2018, the Sixth Circuit reversed a permanent injunction and summary judgment order entered by a federal district court in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action filed by former prisoner Tynisa Williams against the City of Cleveland, challenging group strip searches and mandatory delousing at the city’s House of Correction (HOC). 

The appellate court found that Williams lacked standing to proceed, and that the city’s policies did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

The case was initially heard by the Sixth Circuit in 2014, when it overturned the dismissal of Williams’ original lawsuit against the city, and on remand the district court issued a permanent injunction. That injunction, in the words of the Court of Appeals, “enjoined the City from reinstituting its previous delousing method and from conducting group strip searches without installation of privacy partitions to obstruct the view of other inmates.”

However, the Sixth Circuit took issue with the breadth of the injunction, stating, “The Fourth Amendment does not prohibit all invasive searches and seizures – only those that are ‘unreasonable,’” citing Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979). “Whether a prison search is constitutionally reasonable depends on ...

Seventh Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Juvenile Prisoners’ Civil Rights Case

by Derek Gilna

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed the dismissal of a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by two Iowa girls who alleged they were mistreated at the Wisconsin Girls State Training School at Copper Lake. After their placement in that out-of-state facility in 2015, they said they were subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.

The federal appellate court noted that the district court had prematurely dismissed plaintiffs Laera D. Reed and Paige Ray-Cluney’s claims against Charles Palmer, director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, based upon the defense of qualified immunity. 

While at the Copper Lake facility, their complaint stated, “staff subjected them to prolonged periods of ‘isolation,’ which involved spending about 22 out of 24 hours each day in a 7-foot-by-10-foot concrete cell furnished with only a metal cot and a thin mattress. They allege these isolation cells had urine stains on the floor and wall, and only one window ‘covered by a thick cage reducing light that [could] pass through.’” Further, they said they received little to no educational services, were often not released from solitary for meals and were subjected to several incidents of excessive force, including the use ...

Taser Misuse at California Jail Costs County $1.15 Million

by Derek Gilna

On March 5, 2018, the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department in California settled a federal civil rights lawsuit that alleged deputies at the Rancho Cucamonga jail engaged in a practice of “tasing” prisoners for their own personal amusement. 

The $1.15 million settlement on behalf ...

Seventh Circuit Denies Wisconsin Prisoner’s Claims Against Medical Staff

by Derek Gilna

In an August 23, 2018 ruling, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals denied the deliberate indifference and state law negligence claims raised by Oshkosh Correctional Institution prisoner Donald C. Wilson, who filed a federal civil rights suit against the Wisconsin Department of Corrections in 2009 over medical care for Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, pulmonary distress, and throat and neck pain.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s summary judgment order in favor of the defendants, essentially holding that Wilson had failed to provide expert testimony required to support his claims.

According to the appellate decision, “[D]eliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the ‘unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain’ proscribed by the Eighth Amendment.” 

However, the Seventh Circuit held no reasonable jury could be expected to rule in Wilson’s favor because he failed to prove he had a serious medical condition. In fact, the Court of Appeals said, prison medical staff had conducted extensive examinations and found only that Wilson suffered from a mental health condition, not Alzheimer’s or other maladies. One of the defendant doctors, the Court wrote, “worked with endocrinologists, an otolaryngologist, a speech pathologist, a pulmonologist, a neurosurgeon ...

Three Wrongfully Convicted Ohio Prisoners Receive $19.5 Million

by Derek Gilna

Eugene Johnson, Derrick Wheatt and Laurese Glover, also known as the East Cleveland Three, wrongfully convicted of the 1995 murder of Clifton Hudson, Jr., received a settlement totaling $4.5 million from Cuyahoga County, Ohio in March 2018. Eight months later they each received a $5 million jury award in a lawsuit against city police detectives who had investigated their case.

Johnson, Wheatt and Glover, who were convicted as teenagers and spent 20 years in prison, were freed in 2015 after an extensive investigation by the Ohio Innocence Project found police and prosecutors withheld evidence that would have exonerated them.

The trio had steadfastly maintained their innocence since they were arrested, tried and convicted. Following their release from prison, they filed suit in Common Pleas Court against Cuyahoga County and former prosecutors Deborah Naiman and Carmen Marino. 

According to Dave Lambert, Cuyahoga County’s chief prosecutor, the county settled the lawsuit to “put this long-running matter behind us, and to avoid running the unacceptable risk of taxpayers footing the bill for large verdicts against the county based upon the amount of time these plaintiffs spent in prison.”

Common Pleas Judge Nancy Russo had ordered a new ...


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