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KNIGHT v. KEANE

August 26, 2005.

STACY KNIGHT, Plaintiff,
v.
JOHN P. KEANE, SUPERINTENDENT, SING SING CORRECTIONAL FACILITY, ET AL., Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: KEVIN FOX, Magistrate Judge

REPORT and RECOMMENDATION

TO THE HONORABLE RICHARD M. BERMAN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

I. INTRODUCTION

  Plaintiff Stacy Knight ("Knight") brought this action pro se, pursuant to, inter alia, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("§ 1983"), alleging that rights secured to him by the First, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution were violated by defendants John P. Keane ("Keane"), Superintendent, Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Harry Kerrigan ("Kerrigan"), Sergeant, Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Thomas Dixon ("Dixon"), Lieutenant, Attica Correctional Facility, and Donald Selsky ("Selksy"), Director of Special Housing Unit and Inmate Disciplinary Program, Department of Corrections ("DOCS") (collectively "defendants").*fn1 Knight alleges that his Fourteenth Amendment right to procedural due process was violated when the defendants caused him to be confined in keeplock*fn2 for 365 days following a disciplinary hearing in which plaintiff was found guilty of violating a prison rule. In addition, plaintiff contends that his First Amendment right to receive and send mail was violated when the defendants seized his personal correspondence in contravention of prison rules and regulations.

  Before the Court is the defendants' motion for summary judgment, made pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. They contend that plaintiff's complaint should be dismissed because: (1) the examination of plaintiff's mail was reasonably related to substantial governmental interests and, therefore, was not a First Amendment violation; (2) plaintiff was not deprived of his right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment; and (3) they are shielded from liability to the plaintiff. by the doctrine of qualified immunity. The defendants' motion is addressed below.

  II. BACKGROUND

  On October 8, 1996, while plaintiff was housed at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility ("Sing Sing"), an incident occurred during which three inmates were stabbed ("the stabbing incident"). As a result of these assaults, which were related to gang activity, and after contraband was found, corrections personnel conducted an investigation. In furtherance of the investigation, the A block area of the facility was placed under a lockdown during which inmates were restricted to their cells. At the time, plaintiff was housed in the P unit of Sing Sing's A block. In his deposition, dated August 25, 2004, plaintiff stated that the lockdown took place between October 8, 1996, and October 12, 1996. The defendants' Local Rule 56.1 statement also places the lockdown during this four-day period. However, both the complaint and a notice issued by Director Selsky, which was read into the record during a disciplinary hearing held in connection with plaintiff's alleged participation in the stabbing incident, state that the lockdown commenced on October 13, 1996, and continued at least through October 15, 1996.

  On October 12, 1996, a friend of the plaintiff named "Uni" was assaulted in or near the facility's dining hall. After that assault, corrections personnel approached the plaintiff and told him that they had received information from informants that he was a leader of the Bloods gang, that he could be attacked and that he could be in possession of a weapon. Plaintiff was then escorted from his cell and frisked, and a weapon was found. As a result of this infraction of prison regulations, plaintiff was placed in the facility's Special Housing Unit ("SHU").

  While he was in SHU, plaintiff wrote a letter to his mother. In the letter, dated October 13, 1996, plaintiff stated that he was in SHU on a weapons charge and that he had the weapon because "a friend of mine got stabbed in front of me by some Puerto Ricans (Latin Kings), and I cut three of them." In his letter, plaintiff also explained the circumstances that led to his placement in SHU and stated that there was "a civil war going on between the `Bloods' and Latin Kings right now." Plaintiff stated subsequently that the contents of the letter were true, except for the part in which he wrote that he had "cut" three inmates.

  As part of the investigation of the stabbing incident, a mail watch was conducted and plaintiff's letter to his mother was seized by prison officials. In his affirmation, dated December 15, 2004, Sgt. Kerrigan,*fn3 who was head of the Crisis Intervention Unit at Sing Sing at the time, stated that, although lockdowns occur "only very rarely," it is "standard procedure" to conduct a mail watch during a lockdown because "inmates will use the mail to dispose of illegal contraband." Sgt. Kerrigan also affirmed that authorization had been given to conduct the mail watch and that it was instituted "in an effort to determine who was the inmate or inmates behind the assaults and to stop future assaults." On or about October 15, 1996, plaintiff was transferred to the Attica Correctional Facility ("Attica").

  Thereafter, on October 19, 1996, Sgt. Kerrigan filed a misbehavior report charging the plaintiff with having violated a prison disciplinary rule by assaulting other inmates. Attached to the report was plaintiff's letter to his mother. The letter was used as evidence against plaintiff at a Tier III disciplinary hearing conducted by defendant Lt. Dixon at Attica. The disciplinary hearing began on October 30, 1996, and concluded on November 5, 1996. Plaintiff pleaded not guilty to the charges lodged against him.

  During the hearing, plaintiff claimed that he was locked in his cell at the time of the stabbing incident and, thus, could not have been the assailant. Plaintiff also claimed that one of the individuals who was attacked, Raul Torres ("Torres"), was his friend. Torres was called by plaintiff as a witness during the hearing. Torres, appearing by telephone, confirmed that he knew the plaintiff, that he had gotten slashed in the head during the stabbing incident and that he was unable to identify the perpetrators. Additionally, Torres stated that after he was assaulted, plaintiff took hold of him, asked him if he was alright and then led him to a corrections officer so that he could be escorted to the facility's infirmary.

  Corrections Officer J. Perez also appeared, by telephone, as a witness at the hearing. Officer Perez stated that he was the officer in charge in the A block at Sing Sing when the stabbing incident occurred and that he had witnessed that event. Officer Perez also stated that although he was unable to identify the perpetrator or the victims, he was able to provide a description of an individual who may have been involved. Officer Perez stated that he did not recall seeing anyone answering to plaintiff's description during the stabbing incident and had not heard plaintiff's name called out at the time.

  The final witness to testify at the hearing was Sgt. Kerrigan. Sgt. Kerrigan, who also testified by telephone, stated that plaintiff's letter had been found as a result of the investigation and lockdown following the stabbing incident. In response to a question from the plaintiff, Sgt. Kerrigan stated that he believed the mail watch had been authorized by a superintendent at Sing Sing. When Knight attempted to put additional questions to Sgt. Kerrigan, the following exchange took place:
Knight: [U]nder what stipulations . . . did the Superintendent . . . say that my mail should be censored?
Lt. Dixon: He's already responded to [that], who[se] mail was being watched, next question?
Knight: He said —
Lt. Dixon: He's already responded to who[se] mail was being watched, next question.
Knight: This is my question, for what reason?
Lt. Dixon: He has already given that response, next question.
Knight: Yeah but he said a facility lock down, he didn't say specifically that I was under —
Lt. Dixon: But he has already responded to that question, next question.
In later testimony, Sgt. Kerrigan stated that if Knight had become a suspect during the investigation following the stabbing incident, his name would have appeared on the Unusual Incident Report that was prepared at the time.

  During the hearing and in his complaint, plaintiff objected to the seizure and use of the letter he had written to his mother. Plaintiff claimed that the interception of his correspondence constituted "unauthorized censorship" and violated his First Amendment rights. Plaintiff claimed further that the letter had been opened and read in violation of prison regulations, which required corrections personnel to obtain written authorization from the facility superintendent before inspecting an inmate's outgoing correspondence.*fn4 According to plaintiff, although Sgt. Kerrigan testified at the disciplinary hearing that he believed the seizure of plaintiff's mail had been authorized by the facility superintendent, there was no record of such authorization and, moreover, Sgt. Kerrigan did not have sufficient independent information concerning plaintiff's alleged involvement in the stabbing incident to justify seizure of plaintiff's letter. Plaintiff maintained that the sole basis for prison officials' identification of him as a suspect in the stabbing incident and, thus, for the filing of the misbehavior report against him, was the information contained in plaintiff's letter. Plaintiff asserted that, if he had been identified as a suspect prior to the inspection of his outgoing mail, his name would have appeared in the Unusual Incident Report which was filed by Sgt. Kerrigan in connection with the stabbing incident. Plaintiff contends that since his name did not appear in that report, "as the record stands there [was] no valid reason to suspect plaintiff of [the] alleged assaults."

  Following the disciplinary hearing, plaintiff was found guilty of assaulting other inmates; he received a penalty of 365 days in keeplock confinement, loss of telephone privileges and loss of good time credits. This determination ...


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