ACLU Sues Department of Corrections for Retaliating Against Inmate Who Criticized Prison Policies

Posted: Apr, 09, 2009

The Rhode Island ACLU has today filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Corrections (DOC), alleging that correctional officials have engaged in a pattern of unconstitutional harassment against inmate Jason Cook after he publicly criticized Department of Corrections’ mail policies and sought legal assistance from the ACLU. The lawsuit, filed by ACLU volunteer attorneys from the law firm of DeLuca and Weizenbaum, details a series of retaliatory and disciplinary actions against Cook who, until he spoke out, had a relatively clean disciplinary record.

Among the sequence of events alleged by the ACLU in the suit:

The ACLU lawsuit argues that corrections officials’ actions “in retaliating against Cook for publicly criticizing policy changes at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections” violated his First Amendment right to freedom of speech “and displayed both deliberate indifference and a reckless disregard of Cook’s constitutional rights.” The suit further claims that the various disciplinary actions taken against him violated Cook’s due process rights. The suit seeks a court order declaring these actions unconstitutional, preventing any further retaliation against Cook for exercising his First Amendment rights, and awarding him monetary damages and attorneys’ fees.

RI ACLU volunteer attorney Amato DeLuca said today: “The Constitution does not magically disappear when a Rhode Islander enters the Department of Corrections.  The fact that Mr. Cook spoke up and was retaliated against in various ways, including being thrown into isolation for weeks on end, is an outrage. The goal of this lawsuit is to win justice for those like Mr. Cook who are unjustly persecuted for speaking out.”

RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown called the actions taken against Cook “particularly troubling” because corrections officials had similarly retaliated against the last inmate the ACLU represented in federal court, Wesley Spratt. Spratt was challenging a DOC policy, ultimately ruled unconstitutional, that barred him from preaching at religious services at the prison. Spratt too had a virtually clean disciplinary record, but a week after the ACLU argued his case before a judge, Spratt was disciplined on what the ACLU claimed was a bogus charge.

The mail policy at issue that Cook initially protested, and that was ultimately withdrawn after the ACLU intervened, barred family members from ordering books or magazine subscriptions for inmates. Instead, inmates could only obtain publications directly from a publisher with their own funds.