An inmate who won $300,000 in a civil rights suit against a prison guard is challenging a state law that allows Connecticut authorities to seize legal judgments and other assets from prison inmates and apply the money to the costs of their incarceration.
Inmate Rashad Williams, convicted of an attempted murder, is arguing that the state law is at odds with — and an obstacle to the enforcement of — federal civil rights law, which allows victims to collect damages, as he did, from prison guards or other officials who violate their rights.
Williams is arguing that civil rights law, in addition to compensating victims for damages, serves as a deterrent to official misconduct by imposing substantial financial penalties, in the form of verdicts, on offenders. Civil rights enforcement loses its teeth, Williams argued, when a violator— in his case, state a prison guard employed by the Department of Correction — is permitted to satisfy a judgment by paying the money to itself.
The state law allows authorities to take half of what inmates collect in financial windfalls such as legal judgments and inheritances. Representatives of state agencies involved in collecting from inmates were unable to say how often they have used the law.
Should Williams prevail in his constitutional challenge, the decision could limit the state’s ability to collect from inmates. When state and federal laws conflict, state law can be pre-empted.
“There is something uncouth about the state reducing its liability by paying itself for the bad acts of its employee,” one of Williams new lawyers, J. Tyler Butts, argued Wednesday in federal court in Hartford to U.S. District Judge Michael P. Shea.
Assistant state Attorney General Maura Murphy-Osborne, defending the seizure of Williams’s funds, told Shea that the legal challenge is invalid because the state’s sovereign immunity protects it from such claims. What’s more, she said the need under civil rights law for deterrence has been satisfied because Williams can keep half the money and the state was punished enough by the time, expense and bad publicity associated with a civil rights complaint.
“The trial,” Murphy-Osborne said. “The process. The ignominy of being found liable for violating somebody’s civil rights. The financial payment that Mr. Williams is going to be able to obtain.”
Williams, 43, was led into court in chains and remained handcuffed throughout a two-hour hearing at which Shea sharply questioned Williams’ newest lawyers, with the Hartford firm Robinson and Cole, and lawyers for state Attorney General George Jepsen.
Williams has a long criminal record and has been in prison continuously since 2005, when a jury convicted him of conspiracy, assault and attempted murder. Police said Williams and two other men drove to a New Britain car wash in William’s Cadillac and tried to rob two other men, who were washing a Toyota. One of Williams’ associates, Norman Moore, pulled a gun to shoot one of the car washers, but the car washer was faster on the draw, police said.
Moore dropped dead on the spot from a bullet to the chest. The quick draw car washer, listed in court records as “the victim,” also was hit in the chest but lived. Williams fled and was apprehended later in the day in Hartford.
Over the last 13 years in prison, Williams has emerged as one of the most egregious violators of prison rules, according to a variety of correctional officials. A printout of his disciplinary history is 59 pages long. He has been accused of more than 100 violations, including flagrant disobedience, threatening and, repeatedly, assault on a correctional employee. He has been disciplined about 80 times for “public indecency.”
His civil rights suit turned on an assault he said he experienced at the hands of another inmate while both were in administrative segregation at the maximum security Northern Correctional Institution as punishment for disciplinary violations
Testimony at Williams civil rights trial showed that he had consistently been assigned to a single occupancy cell while in prison because of, among other things, his fear of being harmed by other inmates who were members of gangs. The jury at the trial found that a correctional officer intentionally left Williams, who was handcuffed behind his back, in a locked cell with a violent gang member, who was not handcuffed. Williams was badly beaten.
The jury concluded that the correctional officer violated Williams’ 8th Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by acting with deliberate indifference to Williams’ safety. Williams got $250,000 in compensatory damages and a $400,000 punitive award, because the jury found the officer had acted maliciously. The punitive damages later were reduced to $50,000, leaving Williams with $300,000.
The state agreed to indemnify the corrections officer for both compensatory and punitive damages, meaning the state would pay the entire amount, even though by law the state is not obligated to pay punitive damages. Murphy-Osborne told Shea she did not know who specifically made the decision or why.
The state seizure of half of William’s award would be largely symbolic, if it stands.Murphy-Osborne said the state pays about $57 a day to house a convicted inmate and William’s bill, halfway into his sentence, is approaching $1 million.
But court records show, the state is looking beyond recouping the costs of Williams’ incarceration. It already has taken about $16,000 from the verdict to pay child support payments the state has been making on his behalf. More recently, the state moved to collect another $50,000 or so it has spent over the years to pay public defenders to represent Williams in his various trials and appeals.
Shea did not say when he will rule.