The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today announced the settlement of a federal lawsuit on behalf of Jason Cook, an ACI inmate who, the suit alleged, was the victim of retaliation by prison officials for publicly criticizing RI Department of Corrections’ (DOC) mail policies and seeking legal assistance from the ACLU. Under the settlement, the DOC, while denying any liability, has agreed to pay a total of $7,500 in damages and attorneys’ fees.
The ACLU of RI filed the suit in 2009 after Cook experienced a pattern of harassment by prison officials after being quoted in the Providence Journal criticizing a new DOC policy limiting the written materials available to inmates. He was fired from his job in the kitchen, and after the ACLU of RI questioned the mail policy, the suit alleged that correctional officers conducted a search of Cook’s cell that damaged some of his personal property, and then subjected him to various investigations, bookings, discipline, and unwarranted strip searches.
The ACLU argued that this pattern of harassment by corrections officials against Cook violated his First Amendment right to freedom of speech “and displayed both deliberate indifference and a reckless disregard of Cook’s constitutional rights.” Prison officials’ alleged misconduct continued even after Cook filed suit. The day after the complaint was served on a number of the defendants, the suit claimed that all of the previously active phone numbers on Cook’s call list, except for his attorneys, were suddenly deactivated.
The suit further claimed that the various disciplinary actions taken against him violated Cook’s due process rights. In 2013, U.S. District Judge William Smith rejected the DOC’s efforts to have the lawsuit dismissed.
ACLU volunteer attorney Shad Miller, from the law firm DeLuca & Weizenbaum, Ltd., said today: “I give Jason a lot of credit for pursuing his claims against individuals and an institution which had tremendous power and control over every activity of his daily life. It took courage to challenge these authorities and to hold them responsible for their allegedly unwarranted and retaliatory acts against him. It also took persistence to see the legal process through to reach a satisfactory resolution because at every step of the way the defendants vigorously denied and disputed the allegations against them.”
Plaintiff Cook stated: “The federal court has righted the wrongs committed against me. I hope that this settlement will send a clear message to the employees of the state prison that just because a person is incarcerated, we are still human beings and have rights.”
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.