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Knell v. Bensinger

decided: November 6, 1973.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. Nos. 72 C 138 72 C 1104. JOSEPH SAM PERRY, Judge.

Kiley, Fairchild and Stevens, Circuit Judges.

Author: Per Curiam

The appellant, Roger Knell, an inmate of the Illinois State Penitentiary, Stateville Branch, filed two claims based on 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983 in the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. In the first, 72 C 138, the court granted the State's motion for summary judgment; in the second, 72 C 1104, it granted the State's motion to dismiss. Both cases arise out of the same factual situation.

Based on the pleadings and affidavits, the following facts appear to be uncontradicted. In late 1971, the appellant was accused of writing a letter to an unauthorized person, and of smuggling the letter out of the prison. On or about November 17, appellant was brought before a three-man Prison Disciplinary Committee. The allegation of the rule infraction was read to him and he was allowed to speak in his own defense. He asserted his innocence, and, presumably in order to establish his claim, requested that he be permitted the assistance of an adviser in the person of a "jailhouse lawyer" and the opportunity to call a witness. Both requests were denied, and the Committee found he had violated the regulation. He was thereupon placed in punitive isolation for a period of 15 days, and his case was referred to the Merit Staff for further consideration. While in isolation, appellant was denied mailing privileges including the right, pursuant to a rule no longer in force, to file a writ of habeas corpus with the federal court. Furthermore, during isolation, he was denied the assistance of an adviser and the use of the prison's law library. After his confinement in isolation ended, appellant appeared before the Merit Staff Committee. As in the previous hearing, he was allowed to speak on his own behalf, but after asserting his innocence, was again denied either the assistance of an adviser or the opportunity to call a witness. The Merit Staff, in effect, reaffirmed the finding of his guilt and determined both to revoke three months' statutory good time which he had earned and to demote him in the status by which future good time is computed.*fn1 These suits followed.

No 72 C 138

In the first of his actions, the appellant claims that his rights were violated both in that he was denied access to the courts, and in that he was not accorded adequate procedural protection at the hearings which led to the imposition of punishment.

Following the decision of the Disciplinary Committee to place him in punitive isolation, the appellant attempted to file a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. There is no dispute that, under the then-applicable prison regulations, he was denied the opportunity to do so. In this action he seeks both injunctive relief against rules inhibiting the access to the courts by prisoners in isolation, and damages for the violation of his civil rights which, he claims, such a denial constituted. The State argues that the request for injunctive relief is now moot since the regulations prohibiting prisoners in isolation from communicating with the courts have been modified; that damages do not lie in these circumstances; and, in any event, that the Constitution prohibits only unreasonable denial of access to the courts.

It is true that, since appellant's incarceration in isolation, prison regulations concerning the rights of inmates being so disciplined have been changed. The new regulations, issued on February 15, 1972, and implemented by April 3, 1972, as set forth in the State's Motion to Dismiss or For Summary Judgment, at page 8 of the Record, provide:

"Inmates in disciplinary isolation will:

Receive normal visiting privileges and legal mail privileges..

Visits may be in the presence of an officer.

"Inmates in isolation, segregation or any 'lock-up' status shall not be denied the opportunity to correspond with the Director of Corrections, the Assistant Director of the Adult Division, their attorneys, or with any State or Federal Court." (Emphasis added in State's Brief below.)

Under this regulation, it is clear that a prisoner in isolation would be entitled to file a writ of habeas corpus. The injunctive relief sought by the appellant is to this extent unnecessary. But the prisoner complained of more. He objected to his inability to consult with an adviser for the purpose of receiving assistance in the preparation of his petition and to the denial of the opportunity to consult materials in the Prison's Law Library. We do not know whether the quoted portions of the new regulations have changed the prison rules in this regard;*fn2 if there have been other changes, the State has not brought them to our attention.

In Johnson v. Avery, 393 U.S. 483, 21 L. Ed. 2d 718, 89 S. Ct. 747, the Supreme Court had occasion to consider the problems prisoners face in articulating legal claims. A Tennessee prison regulation prohibited the petitioner from providing legal assistance to his fellow inmates. Reasoning from the premise that "access of prisoners to the courts for the purpose of presenting their complaints may not be denied or obstructed," 393 U.S., at 485, the Court held that "access" meant more than the mere right to file papers with the court. Meaningful access included the right to examine legal materials ...

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