ACLU Files Lawsuit On Behalf Of Wyoming Prisoner Retaliated Against For Reporting Abuse

February 24, 2009
Officials At Wyoming State Penitentiary Trumped Up False Charges

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT: (212) 549-2666; media@aclu.org

CHEYENNE, WY – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Wyoming today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a prisoner at the Wyoming State Penitentiary who was forced into solitary confinement for nearly two months in retaliation for reporting the abuse of a fellow prisoner by prison guards.

Joseph Miller was wrongfully convicted of false disciplinary charges and spent 57 days in isolation after filing a formal complaint with the penitentiary’s warden about physical abuse inflicted upon a prisoner by guards who warned Miller to keep his mouth shut.

The lawsuit also includes a class action claim against the penitentiary’s warden, Michael Murphy, for refusing to release un-redacted copies of prison incident reports and other public documents.

“It is unconscionable that Mr. Miller would be disciplined and forced into solitary confinement simply for reporting the excessive use of force by prison guards against another prisoner,” said Stephan Pevar, an attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program. “All prisoners have a constitutional right to file complaints as a result of any perceived wrongdoing and those complaints should be treated respectfully and taken seriously. They should never result in a prisoner being subjected to retaliation by prison guards or administrators.”

Miller filed his complaint with Murphy in the aftermath of a verbal argument that broke out between prisoner Ryan Bartlett and a prison guard. Eight guards arrived on the scene moments after the argument began and Bartlett was sprayed in the face with pepper spray. After the guards had forced Bartlett to the ground, shackled his hands behind his back and pressed on his back and neck to prevent him from moving, guard Michael Grubbe appeared to kick Bartlett in the head. When Miller informed Grubbe and guard Lonnie Prindle that he intended to file a complaint, he was told by Grubbe and Prindle to keep his mouth shut or he would be “in trouble.” When Miller reiterated his intention to complain, Prindle told Grubbe to “write him up for calling you a m….. f….. and I’ll witness to it,” according to the complaint, despite the fact that Miller said nothing of the sort. Both guards swore at Miller in an effort to get him to back down.

During Miller’s hearing on the trumped up disciplinary charges, Hearing Officer Clyde Goodman refused to allow Miller to call witnesses on his behalf. Miller was found guilty by Goodman, and his conviction was upheld by Murphy. Miller appealed Murphy’s decision to Wyoming Department of Corrections Director Robert Lampert, who reversed the conviction and ordered that Miller be given a new hearing.

During that new hearing yesterday, three eyewitnesses corroborated Miller’s account and confirmed that guards had threatened to retaliate against him if he reported the guards’ abuse. But despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the hearing officer found Miller guilty.

“The deck has been stacked against Mr. Miller from the very outset,” said Jennifer Horvath, an attorney with the ACLU of Wyoming. “Mr. Miller did the right thing by letting the warden know about abusive conduct of his prison guards. In response, not only were false charges brought against him, but his every attempt to defend himself has been rigged in favor of his being convicted. There is no question that Mr. Miller is the victim of retaliation by prison guards and administrators, and his due process rights have been repeatedly violated.”

Prior to filing today’s lawsuit, Miller requested a copy of the staff reports submitted by guards to the penitentiary’s administration in connection with this incident. The reports he received were all heavily redacted in violation of state and federal law.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming, seeks to have all references in Miller’s prison file to the unlawful charges expunged, and a ruling that Miller’s constitutional rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendment were violated. Miller also is asking the court to rule that the censorship of public documents by prison officials violates state and federal law.

A copy of the lawsuit can be found online at: www.aclu.org/racialjustice/gen/38806lgl20090224.html

Additional information about the ACLU is available online at: www.aclu.org

Additional information about the ACLU of Wyoming is available online at: www.aclu-wy.org

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