US judge: Prison officials wrong to punish inmate for rude letter to governor

Print

Rw2 at English Wikipedia / Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0

Stateville Correctional Center

After convicted murderer Fabian Santiago sent then-Gov. Pat Quinn an expletive-laden letter in 2014 about the conditions of his cell at the Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet, officials ruled him “insolent” and sent him to solitary for a month.

But Santiago turned to the federal courts, where U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo of the Northern District of Illinois ruled last August that state prison officials had violated Santiago’s First Amendment rights by punishing him for what he wrote to the governor. The lawsuit remains open, and the questions still pending months later: What is the appropriate award to Santiago, and how many officials should be held responsible?

At issue was a letter that Santiago sent to Quinn after prison officials had assigned as his cellmate a prisoner considered a high flight risk, which resulted in frequent searches of the cell by prison authorities. When Santiago’s objections were ignored by Quinn, he wrote a second letter stating: “Listen to me, you punk ass motherfucker … You have allowed a cess pool [sic] of corruption and abuse against I/ms [inmates] to plague IDOC [the Illinois Department of Corrections.] & haven’t done shit to address these matters. I can only hope you lose the election you fucking asshole.”

The governor’s office sent the letter back to prison authorities, who viewed it as a “major transgression” and started disciplinary proceedings against Santiago. Though the inmate admitted he wrote the letter, the prison officials arranged handwriting analysis to prove his responsibility.

At an August 2014 hearing, prison disciplinary committee members Clarence D. Wright and Colleen M. Franklin ruled Santiago guilty of insolence and ordered him sent to a month in solitary, adopting the language of the officers who charged him: “The content of the letter was very disrespectful in manor. [sic]”

Santiago then turned to the court with a list of grievances: He contended that officials had improperly charged him with a violation or writing the letter; had improperly prevented him from testifying at his disciplinary hearing; and had confined him to solitary in F House, an infamously brutal unit that has since been closed under current governor Bruce Rauner.

The state had argued that Santiago’s speech was a permissible restriction, citing past court decisions that insolent speech directed at prison officials could be restricted because of the potential threat to prison order and security.

Santiago’s court-appointed attorney, Henry C. Krasnow, argued the regulation against “insolent” speech was overbroad and violated the First Amendment, and argued that prison officials had wrongly decided that Santiago’s letter to the governor was insolent in any event.

Castillo, in his ruling, found that the regulation did not violate the constitution, given the need to regulate prison order and security. But he found Wright and Franklin had violated Santiago’s rights by punishing him for writing a letter of complaint that made no threats and was sent to someone outside the prison system.

“While these complaints were unnecessarily rude and derogatory, the contents of the letter presented no threat to prison security,” Castillo wrote.

Castillo’s ruling, on a pretrial motion for summary judgment filed by Santiago, ruled there insufficient evidence in the record to rule pretrial on the other prison officials Santiago named in the lawsuit. He sent the case to a magistrate to resolve the remaining issues, as well as the question of what Santiago deserved as an award.

More From Injustice Watch