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Garner v. Brown

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

March 2, 2018

OSCAR GARNER, Plaintiff,
CAPTAIN LEBBEUS BROWN, et al., Defendants.



         Oscar Garner brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against four correctional officers at the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility (“WSPF”), a maximum-security Wisconsin prison. He claims that the defendants punished him for engaging in activity protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Before me now are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Garner has been an inmate at WSPF since September 2013. The events giving rise to his claims arise out of prison administrators' investigation into a matter relating to a different inmate, Dion Matthews, [1] who is believed to be a high-ranking member of the Gangster Disciples prison gang. WSPF currently houses about 95 members of this gang. The members have a history of coercion, intimidation, threats, and starting disturbances within the prison. Def. Prop. Finding of Fact (“PFOF”) ¶ 18. According to prison administrators, the gang poses a high risk to the safety of the institution, staff, and other inmates. Id.

         On November 30, 2015, the warden of WSPF, Gary Boughton, received a letter from Matthews about various conditions within the institution. Matthews told Boughton that he believed the conditions at WSPF were worse than at other maximum-security institutions. He complained about thin mattresses, the lack of higher educational opportunities, and the conduct of staff members. He proposed forming a committee of prisoners who would meet with WSPF staff on a regular basis to share the inmates' concerns.

         On December 9, 2015, Boughton wrote a letter to Matthews. Boughton expressed his belief that living conditions at WSPF were similar to living conditions at other institutions. He then tried to respond to Matthews's specific complaints, but he did not agree to take any specific action to address them.

         On December 22, 2015, Captain Lebbeus Brown, who is the “security threat groups coordinator” at WSPF, observed an inmate named Zachary Hayes talking with other inmates, including Matthews and Garner, near their cells. Hayes, like Matthews, is believed to be a high-ranking member of the Gangster Disciples, and he was not permitted to be in the area where Brown observed him. Around the same time, prison staff members observed Matthews talking to other inmates in an area that was off-limits for him. Because Hayes and Matthews were observed in unauthorized areas, they were placed in “temporary lockup” until an investigation could be completed.

         During a pat-down search of Hayes, prison staff members found gang literature in his shoe. This discovery prompted Brown to search the cells of other inmates, including Matthews. During the search of Matthews's cell, Brown found an envelope that suggested to him that Matthews was communicating with members of the Gangster Disciples at other prisons. Brown also found two letters written in Matthews's handwriting. The first was the letter that Matthews had sent to Warden Boughton at the end of November. The second was a letter dated September 27, 2015, and it made reference to a “proposal . . . being brought forth by the prisoners of WSPF.” Def. PFOF ¶ 37.

         Upon finding the letters, Brown began to suspect that Matthews was circulating a group petition among the inmates at WSPF. If so, Matthews would have violated a regulation promulgated by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections prohibiting inmates from participating in certain forms of “group resistance and petitions.” See Wis. Admin. Code § DOC 303.24. Among other things, the regulation makes it a disciplinary infraction to join in, or solicit another to join in, any group petition or statement. Id. § DOC 303.24(2). Captain Brown explains the rationale for this rule as follows:

Permitting group complaints or statements outside of the ICRS[2] is a threat to security of the institution and can seriously disrupt the normal operation of the institution. Group petitions generate intimidation and coercion as inmates try to force others to join them in their demands. These types of group petitions have been known to create riot situations within the institutions, disrespect for staff and institution rules, and violent confrontations.

Def. PFOF ¶ 57.

         Brown interviewed Matthews about the letters found in his cell. Matthews denied that the second letter, purporting to be brought on behalf of all prisoners of WSPF, was a group petition. Instead, Matthews claimed, it was a draft of the letter he eventually sent to the warden at the end of November. Matthews said that no one else was involved with the letter, and then he attempted to walk out of the interview. Id. ¶ 38. At this point, Brown suspected that the Gangster Disciples were attempting to organize some type of disturbance at WSPF. Brown knew that the leader of the Gangster Disciples at WSPF-an inmate named Glenn Turner-was critical of the conditions of solitary confinement at WSPF, and he suspected that Turner was using Matthews to organize a disturbance that would attract media attention to their cause. Id. ¶ 39.

         It was at this point that prison administrators turned their attention to Garner. As Brown continued to investigate, he discovered communications between Turner and Garner. Although Brown did not believe that Garner was a member of the Gangster Disciples, he decided to search his cell. The search occurred on December 28, 2015. During the search, Brown found three letters. The first was a copy of Matthews's letter to Warden Boughton. The second was a copy of the letter found in Matthews's cell that was dated September 27, 2015. The third letter is the one that precipitated this suit.[3]The letter was typed and dated December 21, 2015. It was addressed to Captain Brown, to another captain at WSPF, and to “WSPF Administration.” Def. PFOF ¶ 44. It was from “the prisoners of WSPF, ” id., but was signed by only Matthews, id. ¶ 46. The letter used the terms “we propose” and “we ask, ” which are terms that Brown considered to be “demands that are given to address a disturbance.” Id. ¶ 44.

         Brown interviewed Garner about the letters found in his cell. Garner told Brown that he received the letters from Matthews, and that Matthews wanted Garner to review them and make them sound better, as Garner was a known jailhouse lawyer. Id. ΒΆ 47. Garner claimed ...

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