NEW ORLEANS - The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana filed an appeal on behalf of a prisoner given additional time in prison simply for filing a complaint about his confinement. Under both Louisiana and United States law, a prisoner must file a written complaint (called an "ARP grievance") before taking legal action to challenge the conditions of confinement. Last spring prisoner Ernest Billizone submitted a written complaint about his confinement, following guidelines set out by the Louisiana Department of Corrections.
Prison officials took issue with what Mr. Billizone wrote, although his statement contained no objectionable language or threats of unlawful or improper action. Simply because they didn't like what he said, the Louisiana Department of Corrections accused him of "spreading rumors" and punished Mr. Billizone for his written complaint by lengthening his prison stay by 90 days.
Over 4 years ago United States District Court Judge Brady of the Middle District of Louisiana ruled that punishing a prisoner for "spreading rumors" was unconstitutional. Prison officials flouted the law by charging Mr. Billizone with "spreading rumors," despite Judge Brady's clear and unequivocal ruling in Cassels v. Stalder.
ACLU Executive Director Marjorie R. Esman said: "By punishing Mr. Billizone simply for filing a complaint, the Louisiana Department of Corrections is effectively blocking his - and potentially other prisoners' - access to courts, violating the First Amendment of the United States Constitution." Esman continued: "Prison officials must ensure that the Constitutional rights of all prisoners are maintained. This means that prisoners must be allowed to lodge complaints and comments."
ACLU Prison Litigation Fellow Barry Gerharz, who represents Mr. Billizone, said: "If they didn't like what Mr. Billizone said or disagreed with his complaint, all they had to do was reject the complaint. If the Department of Corrections can punish a prisoner for statements filed in an ARP grievance, prisoners will be afraid to exercise their rights even if they do so in a way that is respectful, devoid of foul or abusive language, or threats of violence. All Americans have the right to contact government officials if they think something is wrong. Prisoners will fear punishment for filing meritorious grievances, and will be denied the fundamental right to seek redress for harm caused them."
The case, filed in the 19th Judicial District Court, is styled "State of Louisiana v. Ernest Billizone." Mr. Billizone is represented by ACLU attorneys Barry Gerharz and Katie Schwartzmann.