Thursday, June 28, 2012

PLRA trumps again

     CHICAGO (CN) - A federal judge overstepped his authority by creating review procedures of Illinois supermax prison transfers, the 7th Circuit ruled, finding that the Illinois Department of Corrections can conceive its own system.
     Robert Westefer, representing a class of inmates incarcerated in the Closed Maximum Security Unit at the Tamms Correctional Center, challenged the procedures by which the Illinois Department of Corrections assigns inmates to the prison in a 2000 lawsuit.
     Westefer claimed that transfer procedures violated prisoners' due process rights.
     Though a federal judge with the Southern District of Illinois dismissed the initial claims, the 7th Circuit reversed and certified the class.
     As the parties readied for a bench trial, the corrections department drafted a "Ten-Point Plan for Tamms" that established a detailed transfer-review process. The department had received the governor's approval but had not yet implemented the plan before submitting it to the court.
     The Ten-Point Plan aimed to create a Transfer Review Committee whose proceedings would be digitally recorded and documented, automatic review of all transfer decisions within 30 days of entering Tamms, review of past decisions, written notice of the reasons for transfer, a right of appeal to the corrections department's chief legal counsel, and routine reviews of all inmates.
     U.S. District Judge Patrick Murphy later issued a lengthy decision that said conditions at Tamms "impose an atypical and significant hardship on inmates," requiring prison officials to provide constitutionally sufficient due process review of transfer decisions.
     Murphy's order adopted the Ten-Point Plan, plus six extra requirements of his own.
     On appeal, the corrections department said that Murphy's injunction was overly broad and needlessly intrusive, in violation of the Prison Litigation Reform Act and cautionary language from the Supreme Court.
     A three-judge panel agreed and vacated the injunction last week.
     "Under the PLRA injunctive relief to remedy unconstitutional prison conditions must be 'narrowly drawn,' extend 'no further than necessary' to remedy the constitutional violation, and use the 'least intrusive means' to correct the violation of the federal right," Judge Diane Sykes wrote for the court, abbreviating the Prison Litigation Reform Act.
     "These standards preserve significant administrative discretion and flexibility for prison officials," she added.
     After examining the due process requirements created by Supreme Court precedent, the panel found that Murphy's injunction substantially exceeded them.
     "In short, the injunction goes well beyond what the Supreme Court has said is constitutionally required," the 14-page opinion states. "By incorporating a highly specific notice-and-hearing system into the injunction, the district court has in effect established the details of that system as constitutional requirements."
     On remand, Murphy must take a more hands-off approach.
     "It is up to IDOC to craft transfer-review procedures that meet the requirements of due process," Sykes wrote, abbreviating the Illinois Department of Corrections. "The court should do no more than order IDOC officials to do so in general terms and to verify that the plan they submit satisfies the relevant constitutional mandates." 


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