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Brooks v. Buscher

July 28, 1995




Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, East St. Louis Division. No. 88 C 3555--Gerald B. Cohn, Magistrate Judge.

Before CUMMINGS and KANNE, Circuit Judges, and WALTER, District Judge. *fn1

KANNE, Circuit Judge.



Billy Joe Brooks is a prison inmate who wanted to use the prison law library. Because he was a threat to others, prison officials gave him only indirect access to the library. Brooks sued, claiming the limitations on access to the library violated his right of access to the courts. The district court entered judgment in his favor; we reverse.

I. Background

Billy Joe Brooks is a "circuit rider" in the Illinois prison system. *fn2 Unlike the old custom of judges riding circuit from town to town to administer justice, Brooks rides his circuit from prison to prison because he is a violent and predatory inmate. Officially known as the Temporary Disciplinary Transfer program, the circuit rider program shuffles among Illinois prisons those inmates who pose threats to prison order, so that they may not put down roots and exercise too much influence at one correctional facility. Typically, circuit riders are gang leaders or inmates who have repeatedly broken the rules and who pose an extreme threat to prison safety and discipline.

Prison officials placed Brooks in the segregation unit at the Vandalia Correctional Center (VCC) from May 18, 1988, to June 8, 1988, exactly three weeks. VCC is a medium security prison; only those prisoners in the segregation unit are considered maximum security inmates. Prisoners in the segregation unit are allowed one hour of exercise and one shower per week and may possess very few items. Brooks amply repaid prison officials' lack of confidence in him. While at VCC, he "was disciplined on a regular basis for throwing food and urine at correctional officers." He also threw a liquid, perhaps urine, on the prison librarian (the person who, as we shall see, was his link to the prison library). He threw food trays and his shoes at the guards. Moreover, Brooks stopped up his toilet and flooded the gallery, so prison officials cut water flow to his cell and restored it only for short periods to allow him to flush and use the wash basin.

After Brooks had thrown urine several times on guards, prison officials decided to remove from his cell the containers he was using to hold the urine. Prison guards put together an extraction team, a group of several shielded and padded guards who wrestle belligerent and uncooperative inmates such as Brooks to the ground and handcuff them. Brooks was extracted from his cell and immediately transferred to another prison, ending his brief yet eventful stay at VCC.

Brooks, a frequent and accomplished litigator, nearly immediately filed suit against a battery of defendants. *fn3 He alleged that while he was at VCC, prison officials violated his right of access to the courts, placed him in inhumane conditions and used excessive force amounting to cruel and unusual punishment, and discriminated against him because of his race. The district court, acting through a magistrate judge, held a bench trial on the access to courts claim and the cruel and unusual punishment claim. The district court found for the defendants on the cruel and unusual punishment claim. However, it found that prison officials had denied Brooks his right of access to the courts, but awarded only nominal damages. Brooks appeals from the award of only nominal damages; the defendants cross-appeal from the judgment that they are liable at all.

II. Analysis

We review the district court's findings of fact for clear error. Shango v. Jurich, 965 F.2d 289, 291 (7th Cir. 1992). No party disputes the district court's findings of fact, however. We also use the clear error standard for the district court's conclusions that applied law to fact. United States v. Burns, 37 F.3d 276, 278 n.2 (7th Cir. 1994), cert. denied 1995 WL 393300 (June 19, 1995). Those are the types of questions disputed in this appeal. See Shango, 965 F.2d at 291-92. Clear error exists when we "are left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." Kraushaar v. Flanigan, 45 F.3d 1040, 1052 (7th Cir. 1995).

Prisoners have a constitutional right to "meaningful" access to the courts. Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 828, 97 S.Ct. 1491, 1498 (1977); Shango, 965 F.2d at 291; Hossman v. Spradlin, 812 F.2d 1019, 1021 (7th Cir. 1987). Prisoners must receive "that quantum of access to prison libraries--not total or unlimited access--which will enable them to research the law and determine what facts may be necessary to state a cause of action." Hossman, 812 F.2d at 1021; see also Campbell v. Miller, 787 F.2d 217, 226 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 1019 (1986). Security reasons, however, may justify strict time, place, and manner restrictions. Shango, 965 F.2d at 292; Caldwell v. Miller, 790 F.2d 589, 606 (7th Cir. 1986). Accordingly, inconvenient or highly restrictive regulations may be entirely appropriate and not violate a prisoner's constitutional right of access, as long as the restrictions do not actually completely deny meaningful access to the courts. Hossman, 812 F.2d at 1021.

This Circuit uses a two-part test to decide if prison officials violated the right of access to the courts. Jenkins v. Lane, 977 F.2d 266, 268 (7th Cir. 1992). First, the prisoner must prove that prison officials failed "`to assist in the preparation and filing of meaningful legal papers.'" Id. (quoting Bounds, 430 U.S. at 828, 97 S.Ct. at 1498). Second, he must show "some ...

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