The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), mandates sentence enhancements for certain federal defendants who commit crimes with firearms; those who have three or more prior “violent felonies” or “serious” drug offenses face a minimum 15-year prison term. In some cases, however, prior state convictions should not quality as “predicate” offenses for…

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On July 19, 2013, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a grant of summary judgment to three defendants, holding there was sufficient evidence for a jury to find they acted with deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s serious dental needs. Richard M. Smego, a civil detainee at Illinois’ Rushville Treatment and Detention Center, filed suit…

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By Mark Wilson / Prison Legal News

On August 16, 2013, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held for the second time that a prisoner’s request to form an atheist study group must be given the same consideration as other religious study groups.

Wisconsin prisoner James J. Kaufman, an atheist, asked to form a study group dedicated to atheism. Prison officials denied his request as one seeking to establish a nonreligious activity group. He then filed suit in federal court.

In 2005, the Seventh Circuit held that prison officials had violated Kaufman’s First Amendment rights by refusing his request to create a religious study group dedicated to atheism while allowing other religious study groups. See: Kaufman v. McCaughtry, 419 F.3d 678 (7th Cir. 2005) (Kaufman I).

After Kaufman was transferred to the Stanley Correctional Institution, he “encountered nearly identical resistance to his efforts to create an atheist practice group.”

Prisoners requesting to participate in religious study “fill out a Religious Preference form that allows them to select one of the recognized umbrella groups, ‘no preference,’ or ‘other.’ If the inmate selects ‘other,’ he may write in a religion. If the religion he specifies does not fall within one of the seven umbrella groups, he is not permitted to attend a religious practice group, though he may practice on his own by visiting the religious library or meeting with the Chaplain individually.”

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By Prison Legal News

In separate decisions, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of two lawsuits filed by disabled state prisoners, finding that the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) may have violated their rights under the Rehabilitation Act (RA), while skirting claims raised under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In May 2010, Phillip E. Jaros was sent to the Vandalia Correctional Center (VCC) to serve a two-year sentence for driving on a suspended license.

Medical records indicated that Jaros suffered from several serious physical ailments, including advanced osteoarthritis and vascular necrosis in his right hip. He required a cane to walk, and walking for more than a few minutes made him tired. He suffered chronic, severe pain whether walking, sitting, standing or lying down. Private physicians had recommended a hip replacement.

VCC was not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and lacked grab bars for the physically disabled near toilets and in showers and walkways. Two days after his arrival at VCC, Jaros told Teanah Harter, a grievance coordinator, that he required such accommodations. She conceded that VCC was not ADA compliant but told Jaros “to just deal with it,” because the prison’s administrators “did not do” medical transfers. Harter recommended that the warden deny a grievance filed by Jaros on the grounds that he could not be transferred as he had less than a year left to serve.

VCC’s failure to accommodate Jaros’ disability caused him to miss some meals because he could not walk fast enough to the cafeteria. He also limited himself to four showers a month out of fear that he would fall. Further, he alleged he was not approved for work release due to a “medical hold” placed in his file due to his disability.

Following his release, Jaros brought claims under the RA, ADA and Eighth Amendment. The suit was dismissed at the screening stage for failure to state a claim, and he appealed.

The Seventh Circuit held that the district court had properly dismissed the Eighth Amendment claim because “the alleged conditions of Jaros’s confinement did not deprive him of life’s necessities.” The Court of Appeals then turned to the RA and ADA claims.

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By Prison Legal News

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a district court’s application of a “de minimis harm” standard in dismissing a Wisconsin detainee’s claim that he was sexually groped.

In April 2008, James Washington, Jr. was a pretrial detainee at a Wisconsin jail when a guard, John P. Hively, allegedly fondled his “testicles and penis through [his] clothing” during a pat down, “then while strip searching him fondled his nude testicles for two or three seconds.” Washington filed a federal lawsuit against Hively, who denied the allegations.

The district court granted Hively’s motion for summary judgment. The court correctly recognized that it could not resolve the factual disputes on summary judgment. However, even presuming “that the defendant grabbed the plaintiff’s genitals in a way that was not related to penological interests,” the district court found Hively was entitled to summary judgment because Washington “presented evidence of only de minimis injury” and had “suffered at most an assault and battery.”

Washington appealed and the Seventh Circuit reversed, finding that “the judge’s references to ‘de minimis injury’ and ‘assault and battery’ inappropriately invoked excessive force cases,” which hold “that ‘de minimis uses of force are non-actionable.’”

The Court of Appeals found that “an unwanted touching of a person’s private parts, intended to humiliate the victim or gratify the assailant’s sexual desires, can violate a prisoner’s constitutional rights whether or not the ‘force’ exerted by the assailant is significant.”

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