Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Court of Appeals gives one to the inmates

The Court of Appeals gives one to inmates at the County Jail, who have more rights than inmates in the State lockup. It also gets around the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which requires inmates to file grievances over their mistreatment before they can file suit in federal court.

The case is Johnston v. Genessee County Sheriff, a summary order decided on February 2. Johnston was at the Genessee County Jail. Before he was found guilty of burglary, he was placed in isolation without an opportunity to challenge his placement. The district court dismissed the claim on summary judgment, applying the Supreme Court's ruling in Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472 (1995), which applies the Eighth Amendment in making it easier for jail officials to isolate inmates who are convicted of a crime. Since Johnson was not yet convicted of anything when he was placed in isolation, a Fourteenth Amendment test applies. The Second Circuit (Cabranes Kearse and Straub) sends the case back to the district court to apply the right test.

Johnston also claims that a correctional officer assaulted him after he was convicted of burglary, two days before he was sent to State Prison. The district court threw out this claim because Johnston did not file a grievance over the assault before bringing his lawsuit. That's right, folks. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, you have to grieve the beating before filing suit. The PLRA was supposed to make life easier by keeping more inmate cases away from the courts, but, of course, in life what was supposed to be easier only made things more complicated. There are unintended loopholes in the PLRA and the courts have to deal with them one case at a time. In this case, since Johnston left the County Jail only a few days after a corrections officer assaulted him, the grievance exhaustion requirement is excused. "The PLRA does not require prisoners to reach across jurisdictional lines to take advantage of grievance systems that are no longer available to them."

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