United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Northern Division
CARLTON W. REEVES, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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. 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.
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
Does The PLRA Apply To Pickens' Federal Law
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.” 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. 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, 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. 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 a Person on Earned-Release Supervision a
PLRA defines “prisoner” as “any person
incarcerated or detained in any facility” for an actual
or alleged violation of criminal law. 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.
true that state law establishes that people on earned-release
supervision “retain inmate status.” But “inmate
status” appears to merely indicate that a person
remains “under the jurisdiction of
[MDOC].” In this sense, people on earned-release
supervision are no different than people on parole, who also
remain “under the supervision of
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.” The only substantive
difference between earned-supervise release and parole are
the programs' pre-release eligibility requirements, not
their post-release restrictions on liberty. The programs
are so similar that the Mississippi Supreme Court has
occasionally referred to one as the other.
equivalence is important. Persons on parole have been
“released from incarceration to the general public,
” and are therefore not prisoners under the
PLRA. 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.
Was Pickens' Grandmother's House a
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 - the Fifth
Circuit emphasized that detention in such a house occurs
“prior [to] being released to parole or
mandatory supervision.” 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.
Does the State Exhaustion Requirement Apply to Pickens'
State Law Claims?
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.” 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.” 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.
does not dispute that he was an “offender” whose
claims were unexhausted at the time he filed this
suit. 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.”
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.” 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. This is not one of those cases. This
Court is well-suited to interpret a small, unambiguous
portion of a state statute. This Court will retain
jurisdiction over Pickens' state law claims to do so.
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. The Act straightforwardly
does not apply to independent contractors, who are not state
officials or employees.
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.” That language is conclusive so long as
it is “unambiguous and does not lead to an absurd
result.” “There 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