In April 2011, an Indiana inmate was placed in isolation, denied jail privileges, and given another 30 days on his sentence for the alleged violation of prison rules. The purported offense was downloading legal forms on a prison library computer for other inmates — a task inmate Eric Grandberry completed at the request of prison staff.
It took three years and two federal appeals court rulings. But on Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held once and for all what apparently was not obviously to the state corrections department: you can’t punish a prisoner for doing what he was told.
“It is more than a little surprising to encounter an argument by a prison system that an inmate may be penalized for obeying an order by the prison’s staff,” wrote a unanimous three-judge panel. “… If the library staff gave Grandberry improper orders, the penalty should fall on the staff members.”
The state did not dispute that prison staff specifically asked Grandberry to download forms for other inmates. In fact, Grandberry was the the head inmate law clerk at Putnamville Correctional facility, and it was typically part of his job to download legal forms for other prisoners. Instead, it argued that Grandberry should have flouted these orders because doing so would be against prison rules. In defense of this argument against Grandberry, the state followed the case through two appeals without ever backing down from its position.
The first appeal was about procedure. The state had argued that Grandberry was not entitled to take his case to federal court, because he had already receive due process in the context of the disciplinary hearing granted him in the prison system. In that hearing and after it, the state refused to provide Grandberry with the official investigatory report of what he did wrong and did not appear to consider his defense. This prison hearing would have been his last resort, if not for a federal appeals court ruling that held he was entitled to review.
Once the federal appeals court decided it could review the case and got a look at the facts, the case became a no-brainer in Grandberry’s favor. For one thing, the allegation against Grandberry was that he engaged in “unauthorized” use of a computer. And an order from a member of prison staff was explicitly listed as a form of authorization. But there’s an even broader point that makes Indiana’s argument seem particularly nonsensical: Prisons are not comparable to free and open society. “Prisons regularly contend that prisoners must obey all orders” the three-judge panel points out. “‘Comply now and protest later’ is a staple in prison life.” Not only would disobeying such an order seem out of the question to an inmate who has spent any time experiencing this culture; it would also “ill serve the interests of the Indiana Department of Corrections to tell prisoners (as the Department’s appellate brief insists) that they are not only entitled but also required to disobey orders that should not have been given.”
Report after report paints a bleak picture of life in a U.S. prisons, even by the standards to which we hold facilities for locking up criminals. A major proportion of these criminals, including Grandberry, are there for a drug offense. And when they are treated in ways that test the limits of the Constitution, they have very few avenues for launching challenges to the limited, secret hearings inmates are given inside the prisons.
In Grandberry’s case, Indiana spent a lot of time, and likely a lot of money, to defend this disciplinary punishment against a man whose violation was downloading something benign on a computer.