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Barber v. State

Supreme Court of Alaska

March 17, 2017

JAMES E. BARBER, Appellant,

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, No. 3AN-81-05274 CI Third Judicial District, Anchorage, John Suddock, Judge.


          James E. Barber, pro se, Anchorage, Billy Jack Wiglesworth, pro se, Wasilla, and Matthew M. Moore, pro se, Palmer, Appellants.

          John K. Bodick, Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, and Craig W. Richards, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellees.

          Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Maassen and Bolger, Justices. [Fabe and Winfree, Justices, not participating.]


          STOWERS, Chief Justice.


         Beginning in 2013 a number of pro se prisoners moved for the superior court to enforce the terms of the 1990 Final Settlement Agreement and Order[2] in the Cleary case, [3] a class action by inmates regarding prison conditions. In 2014 Superior Court Judge John Suddock dismissed the prisoners' motions, concluding that the Final Settlement Agreement was unenforceable because it had been terminated in 2001 when Superior Court Judge Elaine M. Andrews found that the requirements for termination had been met. But Judge Andrews did not terminate the Final Settlement Agreement because she determined that the Alaska Prison Litigation Reform Act was only constitutional if it did not terminate the Final Settlement Agreement. Judge Andrews's 2001 Order became the law of the case when it was issued. Because Judge Suddock failed to make required findings when reversing the law of the case, we reverse Judge Suddock's Order and remand for further proceedings.


         A. The Cleary Case

         Smith v. Cleary describes the Cleary Final Settlement Agreement:

This case began in 1981 as a class action brought against the state by Alaska prisoners challenging prison conditions. The plaintiffs formed three subclasses: pretrial detainees (subclass A), sentenced prisoners in state owned or operated correctional centers (subclass B), and prisoners held by the state in federal facilities (subclass C). Although the state and subclass C settled in 1983, litigation continued with the remaining subclasses until the parties entered a comprehensive settlement, which the superior court incorporated in a consent decree in 1990.
The settlement agreement applied to "all inmates, with some exceptions, who are or will in the future be incarcerated in correctional facilities owned or operated by the state" and bound the Department of Corrections and "any successor department, division, or agency of the state of Alaska which is statutorily responsible for the administration of the state's adult correctional facilities." It included elaborate provisions for future operation of Alaska prisons, enumerated rights of inmates, guaranteed the availability of specific rehabilitative programs and services, required the state to implement an inmate classification system, created population guidelines, and established caps to eliminate overcrowding. The agreement also established mechanisms to monitor ongoing compliance, including a provision calling for a designated superior court judge to have continuing jurisdiction over alleged violations.[4]

         The Final Settlement Agreement "ordinarily allows compliance challenges to be prosecuted individually by prisoners who have exhausted all available administrative remedies."[5]

         B. Alaska Prison Litigation Reform Act And 2001 Superior Court Order

         In 1999 the Alaska Legislature enacted the Alaska Prison Litigation Reform Act (APLRA), AS 09.19.200, which established standards for terminating prospective relief under the Final Settlement Agreement and any other litigation challenging prisoner conditions in Alaska. Alaska Statute 09.19.200(c) provides:

Prospective relief ordered in a civil action with respect to correctional facility conditions, including prospective relief ordered under a consent decree, regardless of whether that civil action was filed or the relief ordered before or after August 30, 1999, shall be terminated upon the motion of the defendant unless the court finds that there exists a current violation of a state or federal right....

         In 2000 the Department moved to terminate the Final Settlement Agreement pursuant to AS 09.19.200(c).[6] The plaintiffs opposed that motion and argued that the APLRA was unconstitutional.[7] Judge Andrews ruled that the APLRA was constitutional provided that it only terminated the prospective effect of the Final Settlement Agreement and not the Agreement itself.[8] She concluded that prospective relief under the APLRA is limited to remedy violations of state or federal law.[9]

         In 2001 Judge Andrews held another hearing on the status of the Final Settlement Agreement.[10] The court-appointed compliance monitor reported that all matters referred to him were resolved in conformity with the Agreement and that judicial oversight was no longer necessary; the court then terminated active judicial supervision in the case.[11]

         Judge Andrews also explained that the majority of federal courts had terminated previously issued prisoner-rights consent decrees under the federal equivalent of the APLRA.[12] But she instead adopted the approach in Gilmore v. California[13] and decided that the APLRA should be construed to leave the Final Settlement Agreement intact while restricting the court's authority to order continuing prospective relief under the Agreement.[14] Judge Andrews noted that the Gilmore court "described the consideration of whether the termination of consent decrees violates the separation of powers doctrine as a 'grave constitutional question whether Congress can command the courts retroactively to terminate a final judgment.' "[15] Judge Andrews agreed with Gilmore that "it would pose a grave constitutional question if the Alaska Legislature was attempting to require the court to terminate a final order and judgment rather than merely terminate the relief available under the consent decree."[16] She therefore avoided "the more difficult question of constitutionality ... by construing the APLRA narrowly to terminate only prospective relief due parties under the consent decree but not the consent decree itself."[17] No party appealed Judge Andrews's decision, and that decision became law of the case.

         C. Current Challenges

         1. James Barber

         In October 2013 James Barber and four other inmates housed at Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward each filed 30 identical motions under the Cleary heading alleging violations of the Final Settlement Agreement. In February 2014 the Goose Creek Correctional Center in Wasilla began restricting prisoners from sending mail to one another "except as allowed by the superintendent." In April 2014 after Barber had been transferred to Goose Creek, he and nine other inmates filed motions under the Cleary heading regarding the Department of Corrections' decision to prohibit prisoner-to-prisoner mail communication. The inmates contended that the Department's policy violated the Final Settlement Agreement.

         2. Billy Jack Wiglesworth

         Billy Jack Wiglesworth was already a prisoner at the Goose Creek Correctional Center when it began prohibiting prisoner-to-prisoner mail. In March 2014 after exhausting his administrative remedies through the prison grievance system Wiglesworth, along with three other inmates, filed a motion in the superior court. Wiglesworth's motion alleged violations of the Final Settlement Agreement, the Alaska Administrative Code, the Alaska Constitution, and the Department's procedures. Although Wiglesworth contended that the Department's action violated his constitutional right to free speech, he requested that the court in its discretion order prospective relief for 18 months to give the parties an opportunity to separately litigate the free speech issue.[18]

         The Department opposed Wiglesworth's motion and argued that the prisoners had failed to show that the restriction was a violation of his state or federal rights. The Department asserted that 22 AAC 05.520(a) provided it with the authority to restrict prisoner mail where "the security of the facility requires limitation"; it claimed that the restriction was required to combat an increase in gang activity in Alaska prisons.

         In his reply Wiglesworth again suggested that the court could provide relief for up to two years while the parties litigated the issue of prisoner free speech. Wiglesworth noted the Department did not support its claim that gang activity had increased or suggest that its previous practice of restricting mail on a case by case basis was no longer sufficient. He argued that if the Department was correct in asserting that new concerns about increasing gang violence prompted the change in policy, the Department should have sought modification of the Final Settlement Agreement pursuant to Alaska Civil Rule 60(b).

         In April 2014 Goose Creek instituted a new rule that inmates would be able to receive black and white photocopies of all incoming letters and would not receive the originals.[19] Wiglesworth moved for a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order pending the outcome of the administrative process. The Department opposed the motion and argued that Wiglesworth failed to show that its practice violated state or federal law, that security concerns justified the new procedure, and that the new procedure did not violate the Final Settlement Agreement.

         3. 2014 Superior Court Order

         In July 2014 Judge Suddock concluded that the superior court was no longer authorized to enforce the Final Settlement Agreement. Judge Suddock explained that Judge Andrews's 2001 Order misinterpreted Gilmore v. California.[20] Judge Suddock noted that under the APLRA the State as a moving party was entitled to termination of remedies as to the Final Settlement Agreement's provisions absent allegations of current and ongoing violations of state or federal rights. Because Judge Andrews did not find any constitutional rights when she issued her order in 2001, Judge Suddock concluded the Department had met the APLRA's requirements for termination of the Final Settlement Agreement.

         Based on the fact that the Department had satisfied the requirements for termination of the Final Settlement Agreement in 2001, Judge Suddock determined that the Agreement was in fact terminated by Judge Andrews's 2001 Order, although the superior court failed to recognize that at the time.

         Judge Suddock then turned to the prisoners' argument that the court is authorized to enforce the Agreement's provisions under a lesser standard for a period of two years. He declined to invoke the court's authority, saying that "the court would invoke its special two-year injunctive power only under the clearest of circumstances, which it [found] [were] not present" and that "changed conditions readily supported] [the Department's] safety-based policy decision to abandon inmates' Cleary rights to receive any publications from personal sources."

         Finally, Judge Suddock described the status of prisoners' rights to challenge prison conditions after termination:

If any inmate desires to file a future claim alleging a state or federal rights violation not grounded in the terms of the consent decree, which extends to the entire class and seeking a narrowly-tailored, least-intrusive remedy that does not unduly interfere with the appropriate operation of the criminal justice system, that course of action remains open, ...

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