Illinois corrections officials contend rules not binding on their conduct

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Illinois prison officials do not dispute that the disciplinary hearing of Illinois prisoner Aaron Fillmore was not exactly by the book.

Fillmore, accused of being involved in the Latin Kings gang even behind bars, was not allowed to see the evidence against him nor to call witnesses.

Worse, the outcome was not in doubt: The hearing officers had been directed to find him guilty, send him to solitary confinement for a year, and strip him a year of good-time credits – effectively adding year to his sentence.

Citing state regulations that were violated, Fillmore sued Illinois Department of Corrections officials, asking the courts to order a new disciplinary hearing that complied with the rules.

The case has now made its way to the Illinois Supreme Court, where in arguments last week the corrections department did not dispute that it did not follow the disciplinary regulations. Instead, the state is arguing, prisoners cannot make them follow the rules.

The regulations governing corrections department procedures, said assistant attorney general Kaitlyn Chenevert told the justices, “do not confer any rights” on prisoners. To hold otherwise, she said, would risk judges facing an onslaught of new cases from prisoners, and require judges to “micromanage” prison officials on matters that involve safety and security.

She contended the regulations served as “guidance” for Corrections Department officials.

That argument, contended Fillmore’s attorney, “Is wrong, and we know it’s wrong.” Peter Baumhart of Mayer, Brown, representing Fillmore, said that corrections officials were seeking “limitless discretion,” which he called an “affront” to the legislature in passing the regulations. “If prisoners cannot enforce these regulations,” Baumhart argued, “no one will.”

The case developed after corrections officials contended in December, 2014 that they had evidence — confidential informants, telephone records, and notes that they said they determined had been written by Fillmore — that he was acting on behalf of the Latin Kings from inside the prison.

According to the court record, Fillmore sought to call eight witnesses at the disciplinary hearing, and contended he had not made telephone calls on the dates officials alleged, nor written the notes. But, the court record shows, one of the hearing officers told Fillmore that he had been directed by a higher-ranking officer not to permit Fillmore to call witnesses and to find Fillmore guilty.

In its report doing just that, the two-member hearing committee wrote that the decision to find Fillmore guilty was based on the evidence, according to the record. But Fillmore had not been allowed to see that evidence.

Baumhart told the justices that he was not asking the courts to review day-to-day decisions by prison officials. But, he said, when denying prisoners’ significant liberty interests – being held in segregation for a year and facing an extra year in custody – the prison officials should be required to adhere to rules that provide for a fair hearing.

“At the end of the day,” Baumhart told the court, the question before the court is whether “to allow inmates to enforce few protections they have.”