Civil Rights

Lawsuit challenges ACI prisoner’s eight months in solitary confinement for free speech activity

“I spoke out against conditions at the ACI and I was punished with almost eight months in solitary confinement,” said Joseph Shepard. “Now that I’m out of prison, I’m speaking out again to make it clear that incarcerated people have a right to share information about misconduct in our state prisons.”
Photo for Lawsuit challenges ACI prisoner’s eight months in solitary confinement for free speech activity

Published on November 15, 2021
By ACLU of Rhode Island

In a case that alleges numerous constitutional violations by the state Department of Corrections (RIDOC), attorneys for the Rhode Island Center for Justice and the ACLU of Rhode Island have filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a man who, the suit claims, spent almost eight months in solitary confinement at the ACI (Adult Correctional Institutions) in retaliation for exercising his First Amendment rights. The suit, filed by Center for Justice attorney Natalia Friedlander and ACLU cooperating attorney Brett Beaubien, is on behalf of Joseph Shepard, who has since been released on parole.

In January 2019, while in Medium Security, Shepard provided RIDOC officials a packet of complaints he had put together, raising concerns about conditions at the facility, perceived rule breaking by RIDOC staff, and failures of the internal grievance system in resolving complaints of wrongdoing. The only response he received was from RIDOC Director Patricia Coyne-Fague, who encouraged him to use the grievance process – the system his packet criticized – to resolve his complaints. Shortly thereafter, Shepard was charged with engaging in a “mutinous act” for possessing documents from a national inmate-led organization to which he had also sent the packet. As the lawsuit notes, under RIDOC’s mail policy, prison officials could have seized the documents when they arrived at the facility if they thought it inappropriate for prisoners to have.

IWOC wrote about this issue in March 2019, here.

And in April 2021 Shepard spoke out about his experience at a rally to end solitary confinement in Rhode Island.

“I was sentenced to 20 days in segregation while I was in medium for challenging the conditions of confinement,” said Joseph Shepard, a formerly incarcerated person. “I spent eight months in segregation. 20 days ended up being eight months.”

The United Nations defines solitary confinement in excess of 15 days as torture.

The disciplinary charge was only a part of the travails Shepard had to deal with as the result of his complaints about prison conditions. According to the lawsuit:

  • Shepard was placed in segregation for two weeks before prison officials informed him of the charge.
  • At his disciplinary hearing on the charge, RIDOC officials failed to call the one witness Shepard requested, and also refused to show him any of the evidence used against him on the grounds that it was “confidential.”
  • Shepard was found guilty of possessing the documents and given 20 days segregation as punishment, but kept in segregation for an additional two months, contrary to RIDOC policy.
  • Associate Director of Classification Services overrode that decision and instead ordered Shepard transferred to High Security, Rhode Island’s “supermax” prison.
  • In High Security, Shepard was housed in the same cell block as an individual who had testified against him in his criminal proceeding and who was serving a life sentence for murdering his friend.
  • Shepard had two more classification hearings, and each time the classification board voted to send him back to Medium Security, but the Associate Director overrode both decisions in order to keep him in High Security.
  • Correctional officers (COs) told Shepard that his disciplinary charge was pretextual, and that he was actually being punished because the content of his packet of complaints about Medium Security had aroused the ire of prison officials and COs.
  • Shepard is permanently disabled and needs special medical care, but was not given timely care while in segregation, resulting in a deterioration in his medical condition, including at one point getting a urinary tract infection after being forced to catheterize himself in a cell whose toilet would overflow with feces.
  • Two other prisoners who were in possession of similar documents from the national prisoner group, but who were not involved with Shepard’s dissemination of grievances to prison officials and outside organizations, were punished less severely than Shepard.

Shepard was returned to Medium Security only after a hearing in September 2019 where the Parole Board agreed to grant him parole; he was released to community supervision in May 2020.

“In 2015, the Rhode Island ACLU settled a long-running lawsuit with the Department of Corrections to establish that prisoners have a First Amendment right to speak to the press and urge changes in prison policy,” said attorney Natalia Friedlander. “It is disappointing that over a decade after that lawsuit was filed, a prisoner was once again punished for complaining publicly about conditions at the ACI. No prisoner should be placed in extended solitary confinement, and the harshest possible prison sanction should never have been imposed on someone for speaking out about misconduct.”

The lawsuit argues that the RIDOC’s various actions taken against Shepard violated his First Amendment rights, his rights to due process and equal protection of the law, and his right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

“The State muzzled Mr. Shepard for eight months in solitary confinement to keep him quiet,” said attorney Brett Beaubien. “They made his life worse because he wanted life at the prison to be better. That’s wrong, and it must never happen again.”

Among other remedies, the suit seeks an injunction against further retaliation by prison officials while Shepard is on parole, and an award of monetary damages.

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