ACLU of Rhode Island cooperating attorneys have intervened in an inmate’s pro se legal action seeking to hold the state Department of Corrections (DOC) in contempt of court for violating a 47-year old consent decree that established minimum standards for the discipline and classification of inmates at the ACI.

The standards, known as the “Morris Rules” (named for the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit), have been in effect since 1972, and an earlier effort by the DOC to disregard them was rejected by the federal court in 1980.  But in the early 1990’s, the federal court began issuing decisions that violations of the Rules could not be challenged in federal court, and instead had to be brought in state court. In a Catch-22, however, the R.I. Supreme Court held that claims of Morris Rules violations had to be brought in federal court, leaving inmates with no apparent legal recourse.

That standstill has existed for some time, but two years ago, inmate Richard Paiva, acting pro se, asked the federal court to hold the DOC in contempt of court for failing to comply with the Rules. He specifically pointed to provisions in the Rules requiring that disciplinary hearings be held before a three-person disciplinary board, barring inmates from being charged with multiple disciplinary infractions for a single offense, and generally limiting placement of inmates in punitive segregation for more than 30 days. All of those provisions, Paiva claimed, are important limitations designed to protect the due process rights of inmates, but that had been violated by the DOC in taking disciplinary action against him.

The court initially dismissed his case, but on appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston ordered a second look, noting that if, as Paiva noted, the consent decree in the Morris case had never been terminated, the basis for summarily throwing out his claims of violations of the Rules was unclear. The case is now back in federal district court, leading to the ACLU’s intervention on behalf of Paiva.

Because the Morris Rules litigation is a class action, ACLU cooperating attorneys Sonja Deyoe and Lynette Labinger have filed a motion seeking to have them and Paiva formally recognized as pursuing the case on behalf of all inmates in order to contest the DOC’s continued failure to abide by the Morris Rules. ACLU attorney Deyoe said today: “The Morris rules were designed almost 50 years ago to provide inmates with basic protections when classified and being subjected to discipline.  These rules make as much sense today as they did when they were adopted.  It’s our goal to see they are enforced today.”