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Missouri Prison Officials Sued for Punishing Inmates Who Seek to Disclose Misconduct; Speak to Lawyers

St. LOUIS – The Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center (MJC) filed suit on behalf of Missouri inmates retaliated against for accessing the prison grievance process, conferring with counsel regarding conditions of their confinement, and pursuing legal action to protect their constitutional rights. The suit seeks damages, as well as equitable relief, for the plaintiffs, all of whom are clients of the MacArthur Justice Center.

 The civil suit filed in St. Louis County Circuit Court, Smith v. Sachse, sets forth state and federal constitutional violations that include Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC) officials searching the cells of inmates who seek to file complaints against prison officials, moving prisoners without any prior notice to far-flung facilities as a form of punishment, and failing to provide inmates with confidential spaces for legal visits and telephone calls.

For example, elderly inmate Tilman Smith, a disabled former coal miner, found himself denied access to complaint forms to pursue grievances against the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center for conditions of confinement, where the kitchen was without hot water for months on end. Shortly after meeting with his attorneys from MJC about these conditions, he was met with an unplanned move from his facility.  He was relocated to Tipton Correctional Center, many more hours away from both his family and his attorneys.

Similarly, MJC represents Norman Brown who, after complaining about repeated disparaging comments directed at him and his attorneys by a South Central Correctional Center (SCCC) staff member, and being named as a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the prison’s parole system, was moved to another facility across the state, more than five hours from his family and attorneys.

These are both examples of a persistent campaign aimed at thwarting both MJC’S advocacy and the efforts of prisoners raising valid concerns about MDOC conditions and practices. “Over the past year we have noticed a troubling pattern of harassment and retaliation against our incarcerated clients who dare to speak up for their rights and the rights of others. While Governor Greitens and the new MDOC Director claim they are interested in reforming the prison system here in Missouri, our clients are being retaliated against for trying to do the same from within,” said Amy Breihan, an attorney at MJC.

MJC Director Mae Quinn noted.  “Unfortunately, in a state where the public defender system ranks 49th for funding and is unable to even do the day-to-day work of properly representing people in the courts, injustices in the prisons and jails are allowed to fester.” 

Quinn continued, “We know there are many caring people trying to do their jobs at MDOC. But recent investigations and news accounts demonstrate staff may face backlash for blowing the whistle on misdeeds.  What has not been talked about is the retaliation inmates face there – and they don’t get to clock out.  They contend with that environment 24-hours a day.”

This is the seventh lawsuit MJC has filed against Missouri prison and parole officials in the last nine months.  MDOC practices and policies have yet to change. 

Instead, according to attorney Amy Breihan it seems some in the system have doubled-down on their efforts to exercise their power and authority in inappropriate ways.  “The message our clients are getting from those who supervise and control nearly every aspect of their lives is: speak up, and you’ll pay. This retaliation is unconstitutional, and we are standing up for and with our clients to ensure it stops.”

All of this stands in stark contrast to recent declarations of Governor Eric Greitens, who has admitted the state’s prisons need to improve and established a Task Force to try to address dysfunction and waste in the system.  Indeed, Missouri has spent millions over the last few years both defending prison officials against lawsuits and paying out settlements because of claims of harassment and retaliation against staffers.

Full complaint here.

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