In a case that alleges numerous constitutional violations by the state Department of Corrections, attorneys for the R.I. 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 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 DOC 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 DOC 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 the DOC’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.

However, 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, DOC 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 CO’s.
  • 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.

The lawsuit argues that the DOC’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.

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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