In 1996, President Clinton signed into law the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PRLA). In this legislation the prisoner is required to “exhaust” administrative remedies before seeking redress in a federal court of law.
Now, let’s break this down in simple terms we can all understand and relate to. “Exhausting administrative remedies” is a fancy expression for following the grievance procedure in place in county jails and state prisons. In Illinois, there is a three step process. The state prison counselor first addresses the complaint raised by the prisoner. Then, if the problem is not solved, the issue goes to the grievance officer in charge of the grievance committee in place at every prison. If the warden concurs with the answer reached by this committee and the prisoner does not, the prisoner can yet again appeal. This appeal must be done within thirty days. The issue then goes to the Administrative Review Board in Springfield. Only after the prisoner receives the answer from the Administrative Review Board has he exhausted his administrative remedies, and if he is not satisfied with their response he can then pursue a civil rights violation claim in the federal courts.
State and federal prisoners alike are required by the 1996 PLRA to exhaust their institution’s grievance procedures before filing any claim in federal court. In Illinois, the prisoner must attach the paperwork demonstrating that they pursued and exhausted all internal administrative remedy processes to their federal filing before beign allowed to proceed. If the prisoner does not produce this documentation at the time he files the claim, he is charged the $350 filing fee and his claim is dismissed with prejudice – meaning he most likely can never raise the issue again in a court of law.
Strict regulations are in place against the prison retaliating against prisoners who file suits against them under law. I strongly believe and argue that the 14th Amendment should also protect the prisoner from retaliation by prison staff when a prisoner files a grievance. In the past, the right to file a grievance was protected under the 1st Amendment by federal court rulings in prior decisions. If due process for relief in federal court requires that prisoners first pursue grievances and exhaust the administrative remedy process, then the right to submit grievances should be protected under the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. In reality, however, prisoners are not protected from retaliation for seeking administrative remedies to their grievances.
I have lived with retaliation for two years now. After exhausting my state grievance procedure, in August 2007 I filed the first soy diet claim in Illinois, seeking relief in the Central District Federal Court system in Springfield. The prison staff immediately started their “Get Your Mind Right” policy by placing me in segregation. Then they let my celly and prison cellhouse workers steal all my property and commissary. Then I was found guilty of trumped up charges and shipped to another prison. There I was written more bogus tickets, again had my remaining property stolen, and spent more time in segregation. “The Hole” is designed to break a prisoner. You are denied all privileges. A shower for ten minutes is granted once a week. You are locked down in a cell for the rest of time with nothing but books and three hots and a cot.
Still, I did not crack under pressure. I have a real good team behind me. The Weston A. Price Foundation joined me in the lawsuit on the soy diet. They gave me their lawyer, David Gary Cox, to represent me. We went in with the old Three Musketeer saying of “One for all, and all for one!”
I was released from segregation in September of 2009. I had spent from May 8th to September 8th in segregation on the bogus charges of having an “unauthorized Business Venture”. I was charged with this when eleven other men filed grievances and demanded health care for soy diet-related problems.
I was shipped from Mt. Sterling to Pinckneyville prison. Then, in December 2009 I was shipped from Pinkneyville to Lawrence prison, located in Sumner, Illinois. Once there I was let out in general population, then written another ticket and placed in segregation again. Then my lawyer took action on the retaliation. Sadly, though, Judge Baker chose to ignore the retaliation and told my lawyer he would have to address it by filing a separate complaint.
Now I have to go through the steps of exhausting my state grievance procedure again. All the time I suffer the acts of retaliation by the prison staff while trying to complete this process. The prison staff do not care about the legal action taken. They are given representation by the state’s Attorney General because they are state employees. They do not have to pay for their legal costs; the taxpayer must eat this cost. If they lose the case, they are not necessarily fired or even reprimanded. The settlement to the prisoner they harassed illegally is paid for out of the state coffers. Again, the taxpayer foots the bill. No one is held responsible for the retaliation against a state prisoner for exercising his right to file a grievance, which is part of the required process in order to assure that the courts protect prisoner civil rights. Federal Judges ignore that such retaliation is happening even as the suit is pending in their court.
Down the line I know I will get paid for going through the retaliation, but that settlement will come out of taxpayer money. At minimum, I will need to replace all the property destroyed and lost each time I was transferred to another prison as punishment. Still, I think it is unfair to taxpayers to be burdened with the consequences of unlawful behavior of state employees. When is the prison administration and staff going to be held accountable for their acts of retaliation? No prison staff member should be allowed to continue to hide behind his badge while violating the rights of a prisoner. Taxpayers foot this bill. You pay the staff members’ salaries. You pay their legal defense costs. You pay the settlement given to the prisoner. Pretty sweet deal for the prison staff member, isn’t it?
The soy diet case is not going away. Too many people have allergic and toxic reactions to it for it to be dropped now, and I am not a weak man. I have an excellent group of doctors and lawyers behind me in this case. I will not fold under the retaliation, but will instead file suit against prison employees whose conduct violates policies and civil rights. I will win, and be compensated – again, at taxpayers’ expense. The alternative the prison seeks, for me to be silent, would only erode the rights of others – both in prison and the “free world”, who follow. Therefore, I will not give in.
Illinois citizens must decide when enough is enough. Only your voice demanding that the Illinois Department of Corrections be accountable for their human rights abuses will stop the retaliation, the lawsuits, and you footing the bill for it all. As for the soy diet case – if we don’t stop the state from pushing it in the prisons, it will be pushed in public schools next. If you have children who eat school lunches, you might want to study up.
We are all connected in this way, despite the concrete and concertina wire between us. Prisoners are the front line; our community’s test subjects and “canaries”, as it were – the soy diet is a perfect case in point. Abandon your prisoners to profiteers and sadists, and if they can get away with exploiting and brutalizing us for monetary gain and the pleasure of manipulating others, they’ll be showing up in your neighborhood too, soon – if they aren’t already there.
Case reference: Harris et al v. Brown et al. 3:07-cv-03225-HAB-CHE
Federal Central District Court, Springfield, Illinois.
Sumner, IL 62466