PRISON DISCIPLINARY CASES
In the first disciplinary appeal he handled, Mr. O’Neil successfully appealed a disciplinary case that involved a loss of 10 years of good time credits. By getting that disciplinary case overturned, the client was released to mandatory supervision many years before he would have had the disciplinary punishment been sustained. While working for State Counsel for Offenders defending inmates who had been indicted in prison cases, he subpoenaed hundreds of disciplinary records and cross-examined numerous correctional officers concerning their offense reports. He is intimately familiar with the TDCJ disciplinary procedures.
Overturning Disciplinary Actions
Although the U.S. Supreme Court has provided some due process protections in prison disciplinary cases, those protections are minimal. Further, to sustain a disciplinary case, the courts require only that the record of the disciplinary hearing contain “some evidence” of guilt. In reviewing disciplinary cases the courts also give great deference to the fact finding made by the disciplinary hearing officer. For these reasons, relief from prison disciplinary actions is extremely difficult and can be very expensive. To accommodate clients, Mr. O’Neil has found it most advantageous to divide his administrative relief process into two parts: the evaluation stage, and the administrative appeal stage.
Further, because of the short time limits for appealing prison disciplinary cases, administrative involvement in the case does not include the preparation of any appeal through the normal disciplinary appeal process. Those time constraints make it nearly impossible to rely upon the mail system to meet deadlines. The result could be the dismissal of an appeal for failure to timely file the appeal. As a result, the inmate will be expected to fully appeal the disciplinary case through the normal disciplinary appeal process. Mr. O’Neil’s efforts of this office will focus on possible remedies outside the normal disciplinary appeal process. Involvement in a disciplinary appeal generally presumes that the inmate concerned has not pled “guilty” at the discipline hearing. The ability to obtain relief in a case where there has been a guilty plea is extremely limited.
Dealing With Discipline Problems
Administratively, Mr. O’Neil will request the records from the disciplinary hearing in order to determine what the hearing officer based his finding upon and: whether the evidence supports the hearing officer’s finding of guilt; whether the sentence imposed was both lawful and consistent with TDCJ’s own directives; and, whether there were any due process violations that might warrant relief. Mr. O’Neil will attempt to obtain any other information concerning the incident that may be available in TDCJ records; however, where TDCJ is not obligated to provide information, you can expect that at every step of the way the prison will do all they can to frustrate efforts in trying to locate the evidence to overturn a disciplinary case. In the case of major disciplinary cases, TDCJ is required to record the entire disciplinary hearing, and Mr. O’Neil is able to obtain a copy of that recording, as well as the TDCJ Disciplinary Report and Hearing Record (Form I-47MA). After reviewing the recording of the hearing, the I-47, other documentation available through administrative requests, the client’s input, TDCJ policies and directives related to disciplinary hearings, and applicable court opinions related to prison disciplinary cases, Mr. O’Neil will provide the client a written report of his findings.
In cases where an inmate received a major disciplinary case and was subsequently denied parole, the inmate will typically be entitled to what is called a Special Review if the disciplinary case is overturned. A Special Review involves the inmate, or their attorney, filing an application to have the Parole Board review the inmate for parole in light of the fact that the previous parole review considered erroneous information.
There are two possible avenues by which to obtain relief in prison disciplinary cases: administrative relief and relief through the courts. Mr. O’Neil pursues only the administrative remedy, for the reasons discussed below. While the internal TDCJ administrative appeals process offers two levels of appeal, there is an additional non-required step in the administrative process which can be pursued. That is to take the case directly to the Executive Director of the prison through the Office of General Counsel. That is where Mr. O’Neil becomes involved.
When Administrative Efforts Fail
If administrative effort fails, the second avenue is to file a writ of habeas corpus. When one files a writ challenging a prison discipline action in Texas, the usual necessity of first proceeding through state court does not apply (except for a very specific and narrow exception) due to a decision by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (Ex parte Brager, 704 SW2d 46). This means the writ in almost all cases must be filed directly in federal court in the jurisdiction most directly located where the inmate is housed at the time the action is filed. Prison disciplinary cases will be heard in federal court only under very specific circumstances. During Mr. O’Neil’s administrative review, he will determine if he believes the case meets those circumstances and advise the client in a written administrative evaluation. Although Mr. O’Neil has appealed disciplinary cases in federal court, he is no longer engaged in that practice due to the cost to the client, the limited types of prison disciplinary cases federal court will hear, and the courts’ reluctance to grant relief in prison disciplinary cases.
LIFE ENDANGERMENT ISSUES
A life endangerment situation exists when there is an inmate or TDCJ employee who poses a threat to an inmate's life, and there is a need to take immediate action to have the threatened inmate adequately protected.
In these types of cases Mr. O'Neil generally assists by interviewing the inmate, obtaining all the facts they can provide concerning the life endangering situation, making our best efforts to meet with the warden or assistant warden while Mr. O'Neil is at the unit, and preparing appropriate correspondence to TDCJ officials identifying the life endangering circumstances and the need for a transfer. Mr. O'Neil will follow up this correspondence with the unit and state classification committees that may review any life endangerment recommendations or decisions, as well as with the Director's Review Board that reviews cases where the unit and state classification committees are at odds. Mr. O'Neil also makes contact with the State Classification desk officer handling the case, to personally discuss the case and insure the inmate's side of the story is fully documented.
The first step is to immediately travel to the unit to interview the inmate, and attempt to meet with the warden or assistant warden the day of the interview. Mr. O'Neil will then prepare correspondence to the unit documenting the situation and requesting an investigation into the life endangering situation or an immediate transfer to another unit based upon the life endangerment situation.
Whether Mr. O'Neil proceeds to the second stage, i.e., an interview with the warden or correspondence to TDCJ in an attempt to arrange a transfer or have a life endangerment investigation opened, will depend upon there being an adequate basis for such a request or correspondence
One should understand that it is extremely difficult to obtain a transfer based upon claims of correctional officer abuse. TDCJ almost never acknowledges such abuse; therefore they will not acknowledge the need to move an inmate. In cases where an inmate feels that they are in a life endangerment situation due to inmate violence and officer violence, you can expect Mr. O'Neil to focus on the inmate threat.
While Mr. O'Neil has obtained favorable results in the past in his administrative attempts to have inmates transferred due to life endangerment, the process is one that is totally within the discretion of TDCJ.
To contact Mr. O'Neil's office about a life endangerment matter, complete the form at the end of this section.
TDCJ has great discretion in assigning inmates to units throughout the agency. Notwithstanding, there are certain circumstances in which transfers can be obtained, such as in the case of life endangerments, family hardship and medical/psychiatric needs.
You do not need an attorney to request a hardship transfer.
Typically, a family qualifies only if the inmate is located more than 200 miles away from a close family member who has a medical reason that prevents them from traveling to the inmate’s current unit. The 200 mile measurement is “as the crow flies” not the actual driving miles. The medical problem must be documented with a signed letter from the doctor on the doctor’s letterhead and must describe the medical problem and how it prevents the family member from visiting the inmate. The family member should also send a letter explaining the problem, describing how close they are to the inmate and how important their visits are. Also, the inmate should be sure that the family member is on their visitation list. TDCJ has advised that they do not approve hardship transfer requests for inmates who are in a disciplinary status or have a custody status of G-4 or G-5, or whose line class status is not at least Line Class 2.
Send these letters to the State Classification Committee, ATTENTION HARDSHIP TRANSFER, P.O. Box 99, Huntsville, TX 77342-0099. You may also call State Classification at 936-437-6271 for more information.
Please be aware that the TDCJ Directive addressing Hardship Transfers specifically states: “Generally, offenders on transfer facilities and transfer offenders in state jails shall not be eligible for transfer consideration until assigned to a permanent unit/facility.”
Mr. O'Neil also handles a variety of other prison administrative matters, such as:
- Visitation Rights
- Medical Matters
- Classification Issues