Federal Appeals Court Reinstates Inmate’s First Amendment Retaliation Claims

A Pennsylvania inmate who alleged prison officials removed him from his Inmate Legal Reference Aide position in retaliation for helping other inmates with legal matters had his First Amendment claims reinstated by a federal appeals court.

Inmate Thomas Wisniewski worked as an Inmate Legal Reference Aide at the State Correctional Institution at Smithfield in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania.  In this capacity, he provided legal assistance to other inmates. 

Wisniewski alleged in his lawsuit that prison officials retaliated against him after he had helped another inmate file a grievance over prison conditions and for possessing grievance materials from a particularly litigious inmate.   According to Wisniewski, prison officials removed him from his job, interfered with his access to legal materials, and engaged in other retaliatory conduct. 

A federal district court summarily dismissed his lawsuit.  However, on May 16, 2017, a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated his claims in Wisniewski v. Fisher.  

The appeals court panel noted that prison officials cannot actively interfere with inmates’ preparing of legal documents.  Furthermore, the panel recognized that removing an inmate from a job simply for filing a grievance or helping other inmates is improper.  

The panel wrote that Wisniewski’s “amended complaint also adequately alleged a causal link between his provision of legal assistance and his job removal.”  

While Wisniewksi may not ultimately prevail on his claims, the appeals court panel was correct in reversing the district court and reinstating the lawsuit. Prisoners do not forfeit all of their free-speech rights behind bars.  They certainly have the right to access the courts and file grievances

While many people do not care about prisoner rights, prisoners are people who possess some level of constitutional rights.  

Kudos to the 3rd Circuit panel for recognizing this.

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