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Pickens v. Management & Training Corp.

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Northern Division

November 17, 2017




         In 2014, James Pickens, an inmate at Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, allegedly sustained serious injuries during a riot. Walnut Grove was operated at the time by Management & Training Corporation, an independent contractor hired by the Mississippi Department of Corrections.[1] In 2016, Pickens was released from Walnut Grove on earned-release supervision. Pickens filed this suit after his release, bringing federal law and state law claims against MTC regarding his injuries. MTC has moved for summary judgment, arguing that Pickens' claims were not properly exhausted. For the reasons discussed below, MTC's motion must be DENIED.

         I. Discussion

         MTC argues that (1) Pickens' federal law claims were not exhausted as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act and (2) Pickens' state law claims were not exhausted as required by Miss. Code Ann. §§ 47-5-801 et. seq. Pickens does not contend that he exhausted his claims under either statute. Rather, he argues that his claims are not subject to those statutes' exhaustion requirements to begin with. Each statute will be addressed in turn.

         A. Does The PLRA Apply To Pickens' Federal Law Claims?

         The PLRA bans the filing of any unexhausted federal claim relating to prison conditions by a particular class of people, namely, “prisoner[s]” who are “confined” in “any jail, prison, or other correctional facility.”[2] Thus, a person's status at the time he files his lawsuit determines whether the PLRA's ban applies to his claims. While neither the Supreme Court nor the Fifth Circuit has explicitly affirmed this finding, “[e]very circuit court to consider this issue” has.[3] And the Fifth Circuit has indicated that it would likely follow in these courts' footsteps, as it has refused to apply other parts of the PLRA to persons not “confined” when they filed their claims in court.[4]

         This Court, then, will focus on Pickens' status at the time his lawsuit was filed. That status was this: living in his grandmother's house on earned-release supervision.[5] Thus, the PLRA applies to Pickens' claims only if two statements are true: (1) a person on earned-release supervision is a “prisoner, ” and (2) Pickens' grandmother's house is a “correctional facility” in which Pickens was “confined.” As discussed below, neither statement is true.

         1. Is a Person on Earned-Release Supervision a “Prisoner”?

         The PLRA defines “prisoner” as “any person incarcerated or detained in any facility” for an actual or alleged violation of criminal law.[6] The statute does not define “prisoner” as “a person labelled as such by the state.” In determining whether a person on earned-release supervision is a “prisoner, ” then, this Court must peer past labels to examine the restrictions placed on a person's liberty.

         It is true that state law establishes that people on earned-release supervision “retain inmate status.”[7] But “inmate status” appears to merely indicate that a person remains “under the jurisdiction of [MDOC].”[8] In this sense, people on earned-release supervision are no different than people on parole, who also remain “under the supervision of [MDOC].”[9]

         This similarity is unsurprising, as earned-supervised release is functionally identical to parole. The statute creating the former makes clear that a “period of earned-release supervision shall be conducted in the same manner as a period of supervised parole.”[10] The only substantive difference between earned-supervise release and parole are the programs' pre-release eligibility requirements, not their post-release restrictions on liberty.[11] The programs are so similar that the Mississippi Supreme Court has occasionally referred to one as the other.[12]

         This equivalence is important. Persons on parole have been “released from incarceration to the general public, ” and are therefore not prisoners under the PLRA.[13] As persons on earned-release supervision are released to the general public in the same way, they are also not prisoners under the PLRA. The statue will accordingly not apply to claims filed by persons, like Pickens, who are on earned-release supervision.

         2. Was Pickens' Grandmother's House a “Correctional Facility”?

         The PLRA does not define the phrase “confined in . . . [any] correctional facility.” The Fifth Circuit has not defined the term either. However, the Fifth Circuit has indicated that a private residence where a person on earned-supervised release resides is not a “correctional facility.” In holding that the PLRA's definition of “prisoner” includes people detained in a halfway house - which Pickens' grandmother's home certainly is not[14] - the Fifth Circuit emphasized that detention in such a house occurs “prior [to] being released to parole or mandatory supervision.”[15] Pickens' grandmother's home is a private residence where Pickens resided after being released to earned-release supervision. Such a residence is not a “correctional facility” in which Pickens was “confined, ” and the PLRA will therefore not apply to Pickens' claims.

         B. Does the State Exhaustion Requirement Apply to Pickens' State Law Claims?

         With the federal exhaustion requirement disposed of, this Court turns to the state exhaustion requirement, Miss. Code Ann. §§ 47-5-801 et. seq. (“the Act”). The Act bars courts from hearing the unexhausted claims of an “offender” which fall “under the purview of [MDOC's] administrative review procedure.”[16] That purview is limited to “any cause of action such offenders may claim to have against the State of Mississippi, the Department of Corrections or its officials or employees.”[17] As demonstrated below, a proper reading of the statute leads to one conclusion:

only those claims against actual officials or employees of the Department of Corrections need be exhausted before they are allowed to proceed.

         Pickens does not dispute that he was an “offender” whose claims were unexhausted at the time he filed this suit.[18] What Pickens argues is that his claims need not have been exhausted; they do not fall “under the purview” of MDOC's administrative review procedure because an independent contractor like MTC is not among MDOC's “officials or employees.”

         This question raises a novel, but uncomplicated issue of state law. Neither the Mississippi Supreme Court nor the Fifth Circuit has determined whether independent prison contractors are MDOC “officials or employees.”[19] In many cases, federal courts are poorly equipped to make such a determination of state law, and should decline supplemental jurisdiction over claims that require that kind of adjudication.[20] This is not one of those cases. This Court is well-suited to interpret a small, unambiguous portion of a state statute.[21] This Court will retain jurisdiction over Pickens' state law claims to do so.

         The Act does not qualify the term “officials or employees, ” nor does it refer to private contractors or prisons. The Mississippi Supreme Court counsels that, when confronted with such a self-evident statute, there is no reason to resort to statutory construction.[22] The Act straightforwardly does not apply to independent contractors, who are not state officials or employees.

         To the extent one needs to construe a statute by drilling through it, this Court must examine a statute's “plain language in context with its design, object and policy.”[23] That language is conclusive so long as it is “unambiguous and does not lead to an absurd result.”[24] ‚ÄúThere is no safer or better settled canon of interpretation than [this:] where language is clear and unambiguous it must be held to mean what it plainly ...

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