Locked up, locked out: Seeking justice behind bars

A Facebook post is all it took for Anthony Martinez to be labeled a gang member. 

In November 2018, Martinez was transferred to New Haven Correctional Center as a prisoner awaiting trial. When Martinez first arrived at New Haven Correctional, like most prisoners, he was housed in general population where prisoners weren’t segregated into special housing units for disciplinary or protective purposes.

However, just two weeks into his imprisonment, that all changed. Martinez was told to pack up his belongings and report to where prisoners are admitted and processed. Martinez did as he was told but on his way to admitting and processing he was stopped by a corrections officer who took him to a secluded room where two other officers were waiting.

Martinez was then handed a folder containing printouts of past Facebook posts and told he was being designated as a Security Risk Group (SRG) member and that he was going to be moved into the restrictive housing unit (RHU). Martinez protested his SRG designation, telling the officers that he wasn’t a gang member and that he had completed the SRG program back in 2017 during a prior stint in prison.

One of the officers asked him if he wasn’t a gang member then why did he “talk like a Blood” on Facebook. Martinez explained that the posts were quotes from some of his favorite rap artists and that posting them didn’t mean he was a gang member.  

“It doesn’t matter,” one of the officers replied. The officer then said that they were going to find Martinez guilty and send him to the RHU “regardless”.

As CII previously reported, several lawsuits filed against the Department of Corrections (DOC) have shed light on the restrictive conditions of the SRG program that led the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on torture to find that the conditions, “may well amount to torture.” The lawsuits also alleged that DOC officials subjected incarcerated people, including pretrial detainees, to the restrictive conditions of the SRG program without a hearing.

Martinez brought one such lawsuit. In his complaint, Martinez was against seeking relief from conditions that triggered him to have panic attacks and led him to be assaulted by actual Blood gang members in the RHU.

However, Martinez came up against the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), a set of laws that effectively slams courthouse doors in the faces of incarcerated individuals all over the country. 

A federal judge recently dismissed Martinez’s lawsuit, not because the treatment of Martinez by DOC officials was constitutional, but because Martinez failed to timely exhaust administrative remedies. The dismissal of Martinez’s case on technical grounds is a standard of the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) that since its inception has hamstrung the ability of incarcerated people to access the courts and seek justice when their rights have been violated.

Lawsuits have revealed that SRG inmates are subjected to in-cell confinement for 23 hours on weekdays and 24 hours on weekends, excessive strip searches, forced recreation in inclement weather, receive access to only three 15-minute phone calls a week, three showers a week, and are denied access to religious services and the library. Some plaintiffs also allege that they were denied medical care while in the SRG program.

Martinez’s lawsuit challenged his designation as SRG on 14th Amendment Due Process grounds. Martinez claimed that after he was designated as an SRG member he never received a hearing to contest his designation. Martinez also sued on 8th Amendment deliberate indifference grounds, stemming from an incident where, after he was denied protective custody, he was assaulted by three Blood gang members. 

After being designated as an SRG member, the officers tried to get Martinez to sign a document acknowledging that he had been shown the evidence against him. Martinez initially refused, but an officer threatened to send him to the most restrictive phase of the SRG program, phase one, if he disobeyed the order, according to the lawsuit.

Martinez signed the document and, while being admitted to the RHU, he immediately suffered a panic attack brought on by the post-traumatic stress disorder that was caused by his previous stay in the RHU as an SRG member. When Martinez explained his condition and his previous experiences in the RHU, an officer said he would move him from a single cell to a cell with a Blood member, according to the lawsuit.

Martinez asked to be placed in protective custody, but the officer said he would need a valid reason to do that, but left before Martinez could give him one. After being placed in the cell with the Blood member, he immediately began receiving threats that if he did not get moved to protective custody, his cellmate would assault or kill him because he wasn’t a Blood, according to Martinez’s complaint.

Martinez again requested to be placed in protective custody, but he was denied. Due to the threats he was subjected to, Martinez suffered another panic attack and had to be taken to the medical unit.

After completing phase two of the SRG program, Martinez was transferred to Corrigan Correctional Institution to begin phase three. The day after being transferred, Martinez was assaulted during recreation time by three Blood gang members, one of whom was his cellmate at New Haven Correctional that previously threatened to kill him. 

Martinez sustained cuts on his face and neck, and lumps and bruises on his head and body, according to the lawsuit.

Locked up, locked out: Seeking justice behind bars | What is the PLRA?

The dismissal of Martinez’s case highlights the restrictive nature of the PLRA. The bill, signed by President Clinton in 1996, created three main provisions: exhaustion, three strikes, and physical injury.

The exhaustion provision, which was the grounds on which Martinez’s case was dismissed, states that “no action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions…by a prisoner…until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.”

As U.S. District Judge Jeffery Alker Meyer notes in his summary judgment of Martinez’s complaint, all available administrative remedies must be exhausted prior to a lawsuit being filed, “regardless of whether the remedies can provide the relief that the prisoner seeks.” Additionally, incarcerated persons must follow whatever procedural rules are in place to file a grievance, which varies from prison to prison.

According to critics of the PLRA like Margo Schlanger, Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School, and the founder and director of the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse, the exhaustive provision of the PLRA makes many lawsuits dead on arrival by requiring plaintiffs to navigate complicated administrative frameworks, meet difficult deadlines, and still not receive any administrative relief.

A report for the Prison Policy Initiative co-authored by Schlanger noted that the exhaustive provision allows for lawsuits to be thrown out for “absurd and unfair” reasons, such as when grievances were filed in the wrong color ink, or when someone who had been assaulted by prison staff listed their grievances all together instead of filling separate grievances for each complaint, or when a plaintiff’s case was thrown out because his grievance was denied for submitting handwritten copies of previous appeals, instead of the required photocopies, without informing prison staff that the photocopier was broken.

The three-strikes provision eliminates an incarcerated person’s ability to pay their court filing fees in installments if that prisoner has had three previous cases dismissed on the grounds that their lawsuit was frivolous, malicious, or failed to state a claim. Under the three-strikes provision, an incarcerated person who has had three cases dismissed on the aforementioned grounds has to pay the filing fee in total at the time of filing.

For context, filing a federal civil rights lawsuit costs $350 dollars and an incarcerated person makes, on average, between 14 and 63 cents an hour for prison jobs, and between 33 cents and $1.41 an hour for jobs in state-owned businesses, according to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative. It’s also important to note that not all incarcerated people have jobs. This financial burden makes filing a lawsuit impossible for most affected individuals.

The physical injury provision maintains that incarcerated plaintiffs cannot receive a monetary reward for claims alleging mental or emotional damages. They can only receive a monetary award if they can show they’ve sustained physical injuries.

In addition to these three main provisions, PLRA also includes stipulations that discourage experienced civil rights attorneys from taking cases by limiting the incarcerated plaintiff’s ability to recover attorneys’ fees and making cases more difficult to settle, according to the report by the Prison Policy Initiative.

Locked up, locked out: Seeking justice behind bars

Anthony Martinez’s lawsuit was dismissed, before the merits of his case were given a chance to be judged, under the PLRA’s exhaustion provision. As previously noted, Martinez was obligated to comply with whatever grievance procedure was set forth by the DOC. To appeal his SRG designation, Martinez had to exhaust a labyrinthian process of both informal and formal avenues of resolution while adhering to unrealistic deadlines.

According to the summary judgment, prisoners must first attempt an informal verbal resolution, if that fails, then they must submit an inmate request form which a prison official must respond to within 15 business days. If still no resolution, an inmate can file a formal level one grievance on a CN 9604 Inmate Grievance Appeal Form within 30 calendar days of the incident, to which a prison official has 30 business days of receipt to respond to.

If the issue is still not resolved, then the prisoner must file a level two grievance with the District Administrator within five calendar days of receiving an unsatisfactory reply or after no response to the level one grievance. A prison official has 30 business days of receipt to respond to a level two grievance. The summary judgment then goes on to say that “under certain circumstances,” though it does not explain exactly what those circumstances are. If the issue hasn’t been resolved, a prisoner can then file a level three grievance within five calendar days of receipt of an unsatisfactory response.

To appeal an SRG designation, there is a different set of procedures. To appeal an SRG designation a prisoner must complete and file a CN 9602 Administrative Remedy Form, a different form than when filing any other type of grievance, “within 15 calendar days of the receipt of the decision being appealed,” according to the summary judgment. However, it’s not exactly clear what that means in the context of Martinez, who wasn’t afforded a hearing or an opportunity to contest his SRG designation, according to his lawsuit.

After receiving an SRG designation appeal, a District Administrator has 15 business days to respond in writing to the appeal and whatever decision is made cannot be appealed further.

Locked up, locked out: Seeking justice behind bars

A prisoner is only required to exhaust an administrative remedy that is “available.” Therefore, it is important to note what makes an administrative remedy unavailable. According to Judge Meyer’s summary judgment of Martinez’s case, there are three circumstances that make an administrative remedy unavailable.

First, “if it operates as a simple dead end–with officers unable or consistently unwilling to provide any relief to an aggrieved inmate.” Second, “if the administrative scheme is so opaque that it becomes incapable of use by the ‘ordinary prisoner,’ who cannot ‘discern or navigate it’ or ‘make sense of what it demands’.” Lastly, if prisoner administrators “thwart inmates from taking advantage of a grievance process through machination, misrepresentation, or intimidation.”

While the defendants argued that Martinez failed to timely exhaust his administrative remedies, based on the fact that he did not file his appeal within 15 days of his SRG designation, Martinez argued back that he was not aware what was happening to him was illegal until months later and he submitted an SRG designation appeal within 15 calendar days “of the discovery of the problem.”

Indeed, the inmate handbook, which describes the types of administrative remedies available to prisoners, does state that appeals must be filed within 15 calendar days “of the action taken or discovery of the problem.” Martinez acknowledges that he didn’t make the “action taken” deadline, but as soon as he found out what was happening to him was illegal, or his “discovery of the problem,” filed an appeal immediately.

However, according to the summary judgment, Judge Meyer found that the directive for filing an appeal of an SRG designation, Administrative Directive (“AD”) 9.6, doesn’t include the “discovery of the problem” language. However, the inmate handbook does use that language, as does AD 9.6 in its general grievance section.

AD 9.6 merely states that SRG designations must be appealed “within 15 calendar days of the notice of designation.” While the inmate handbook directs prisoners to obtain a copy of AD 9.6 from the library to learn about the procedures for each type of administrative remedy, SRG inmates do not have access to the library, according to Judge Meyer’s initial review of Martinez’s lawsuit.

Judge Meyer doesn’t acknowledge that fact in his summary judgment of Martinez’s case, so it remains a mystery how Martinez was ever supposed to have the information needed to appeal his SRG designation in a timely manner. It also unclear how the inmate handbook could direct inmates who want to appeal an action made against them to a document they have no access to, and not satisfy the second scenario that makes an administrative remedy unavailable.

Adding to the murkiness, the inmate handbook, which states that inmates have 15 calendar days “of the action taken or discovery of the problem” to file an appeal, also states that the inmate handbook, “itself, establishes no procedures or standards.” Meaning, that anything stated within the handbook doesn’t set any legal foundation. In other words, the DOC does not have to adhere to its own rules.

“The PLRA unjustly targets incarcerated people with disadvantageous procedural limits, making it almost impossible for incarcerated people to have their day in court, earn monetary damages for their suffering, and get and enforce prospective relief to prevent violations in the future,” Schlanger and Andrea Fenster wrote for the Prison Policy Initiative.

“Repealing the PLRA is a necessary step towards ensuring that people behind bars have real and meaningful access to justice.”

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Tom Hopkins wrote for CII from April 2022 to February 2023. Prior to joining CII, he worked in print, television, and as a freelance journalist.

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