Rashad Williams, who was incarcerated at Northern Correctional Institution, warned Department of Correction employee Dennis Marinelli, a supervisor at Northern, that Marinelli was about to imprison him in the same cell as someone who was likely to assault him. Marinelli did not listen, and he ordered guards to place Williams in the cell with the person whom Williams had warned him about. As Williams predicted, when the guards placed him in the cell, they uncuffed the other man first, and he immediately kicked and stomped Williams, who suffered severe injuries to his head, ankle, back, and knee as a result of the assault.
In July 2016, a federal jury in Hartford found that by exposing Williams to this brutalization, Marinelli had willfully violated Williams’s Eighth Amendment right to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.
The court noted there was “ample evidence” that Marinelli knew of Williams’s fears about an assault by a cellmate, that he participated in the decision to pair Williams with someone who had assaulted other inmates, and that many assaults had occurred at Northern as a result of the practice of uncuffing one cellmate first, leaving the other cellmate vulnerable to attack. The jury awarded Williams “punitive damages,” a fee paid by a defendant for knowingly and willfully violating the law. The jury also awarded Williams “compensatory damages,” a fee paid by a defendant to cover the costs of a person’s loss or suffering, such as physical injuries.
Once the jury decided to award punitive damages to Williams, the state tried to avoid paying the amount it owed on Marinelli’s behalf. It filed a lawsuit against Williams in state court, claiming he owed the state approximately $48,000 for various public defenders who had worked on his behalf in other cases (in the 1970s, Connecticut enacted a statute that allows the state to sue criminal defendants for public defender costs).
The state also paid Williams half of the money it owed him but kept the other half for itself, claiming it needed that money to pay for the costs of keeping him in prison. In the 1990s, coinciding with the state’s decision to incarcerate too many people, Connecticut enacted two statutes allowing itself to file liens and lawsuits against people who are incarcerated for the daily cost of their imprisonment. The state even gave itself the power to sue relatives of incarcerated people who had died.
When the state tried to avoid paying what it owed on Marinelli’s behalf, Williams objected, telling the federal trial court that the state cannot use prison costs to discount judgments against it, effectively using state law to undermine the U.S. Constitution. The trial court agreed, holding that Dennis Marinelli continued to owe Williams the full amount of the judgment against him. But the court rested its conclusion on the fact that the state decided to pay punitive damages, negating the deterrent effect that such awards are meant to have against violating the national constitution.
Marinelli – now represented by current Attorney General William Tong and some of his employees – appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
The ACLU of Connecticut received permission to file a friend of the court brief supporting Williams. Our brief argues that federal law forbids Connecticut from discounting a prison abuse judgment against one of its employees even if the judgment has no punitive damages within it.
We argue that even other kinds of fees that a court can require, like compensatory damage awards, are part of federal law’s deterrent purpose. If the state is allowed to recover the majority of any money owed for an employee’s violation of a person’s civil rights, its employees have no incentive to correct their behavior and the state has no incentive to take steps to prevent it from happening again.