Prisoner Punished For Writing Complaints Vindicated

May 4, 2010

NEW ORLEANS, LA – Because of ACLU of Louisiana litigation, the Louisiana Department of Corrections (“DOC”) has settled a lawsuit filed last year on behalf of Ernest Billizone, a prisoner punished for simple written complaints about his treatment. Mr. Billizone’s written complaints contained neither foul language nor threats of violence or unlawful or improper action, but the prison placed him in punitive isolation and stripped him of earned good time credit because they said he was “spreading rumors.” In settling, the Department of Corrections agreed to clear Mr. Billizone’s record and has 60 days to amend the unconstitutional disciplinary rule under which he was punished.

This is the second time within six years that the DOC has amended the same rule as a result of litigation. In 2004, in Cassels v. Stalder, a U. S. District Court declared an earlier version of the rule unconstitutionally vague and overbroad because it prohibited “spreading rumors.” Despite this ruling, Mr. Billizone was punished for “spreading rumors.” This court settlement and the change it requires should ensure that in the future prisoners will be able to exercise their rights to contact government officials.

ACLU Executive Director Marjorie R. Esman said: “No prisoner should be placed in isolation or punished for filing a written complaint, especially when it’s not a threat to anyone. Mr. Billizone had the right to speak out. His record has been restored because he shouldn’t have been disciplined in the first place. This should protect prisoners who want to speak out in the future.”

As part of the settlement, the Department of Corrections has agreed to reimburse the ACLU the amount of $56,697.85 for the attorneys’ fees and costs incurred in representing Mr. Billizone. The case, Ernest Billizone v. James LeBlanc et al., was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana. Billizone was represented by ACLU attorneys Barry Gerharz and Katie Schwartzmann.

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