New Haven Court reviews prison grievance process in light of inmate lawsuit
In New Haven’s federal district courthouse Thursday, Quan Morgan’s case against fifteen Cheshire Correctional Institution officials proceeded with a focus on the grievance procedure in prison
Sophie Sonnenfeld, Contributing Photographer
Quan Morgan, an inmate at Cheshire Correctional Institution, wanted to swap cells. But his request went unanswered. Days later, Morgan’s cellmate doused him in hot water, causing second and third-degree burns across his body.
Now Morgan is suing fifteen employees who worked for the Cheshire Correctional Institution over their handling of that February 2017 incident, claiming the correctional officers’ actions constituted cruel and unusual punishment and thus violated his eighth amendment rights. Morgan’s claims include mishandling of the initial situation by the captain-in-charge and a lax response from officers to get Morgan medical care.
In court last Thursday, attorneys for Morgan and the fifteen defendants focused on the prison’s process for filing grievances and how that process played out for Morgan.
“At no time from the time of his injuries to his return to CCI from BCC Medical Burn Unit did Morgan receive counseling, accommodation, or assistance in filing a grievance,” his complaint claims.
In February 2017, Morgan, who is serving a 35-year sentence for two homicides, said he observed his cellmate, identified in court documents as “J.B.”, sharpening a toothbrush along the window screen of the cell. Morgan alleges he then heard J.B. say that he planned to stab anyone who annoyed him. He said he verbally reported J.B.’s behavior to former Captain James Watson, who oversaw Morgan’s cell. Morgan said he then submitted a written request form “on or about” Feb. 17 requesting a cell change.
Five days later around 12:45 a.m., as Morgan was sleeping, J.B. threw hot water from a pot on Morgan. The skin on Morgan’s face, back, arms, chest, ears and hands blistered instantly. After the incident, Morgan was kept in the hospital for ten days.
According to Morgan’s complaint, when he returned to prison at CCI, it was another inmate instead of prison employees that told him he had to file an official grievance regarding the incident.
Morgan filed that grievance on April 10. But the Department of Corrections sent it back to him three times, citing errors such as sending it to the wrong person or unit and that Morgan did not provide sufficient information. After the third time re-submitting the grievance, Morgan did not hear back, according to his complaint.
In court, Assistant State’s Attorney James Donohue countered Morgan’s claim, saying that Morgan failed to follow through in the grievance process. Donohue said that Morgan should have followed up on his grievance status.
According to The Prison Litigation Reform Act, an incarcerated person must exhaust all remedies in filing a grievance and pursue all available administrative appeals before they can sue. “If you file a lawsuit in federal court before taking your complaints through every step of your prison’s grievance procedure, it will almost certainly be dismissed,” the ACLU states in their explanation of the PLRA.
Thus, Donohue maintained that several of Morgan’s claims in the suit against CCI employees should be barred by the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement.
“He did not use the exhaustive process,” Donohue told the court. “He didn’t even attempt it.”
Judge Janet Bond Arterton, who presided over the hearing, inquired how many people do use the exhaustive process, Donohue was not able to provide an answer.
Arterton asked if returning the grievance without an answer would be creating a procedural dead end for Morgan. Donohue answered that Morgan could have refiled that April 10 grievance.
Donohue added that although the April 10 grievance filing was verified, the content of previous requests and conversations with Captain Watson — including the request to change cells and reporting of the toothbrush sharpening — were not.
The initial written request to change cells was included in Morgan’s court documents, but Donohue noted that it was unsigned, undated and left unclear when it was drafted. Thus, Donohue argued, Morgan’s grievances leading up to the incident were not enough for Watson to see a clear and present danger.
Arterton asked about Morgan’s mention of a weapon and his fears about J.B.’s behavior.
“Why can’t a reasonable juror find that Watson was aware of a substantial risk?” Arterton asked.
Donohue argued that the cell-change request letter Morgan sent in made no mention of a weapon. Later on, Donohue said, Morgan even told one CCI lieutenant that J.B. threw away the weapon after being questioned. Donohue told the court this indicated there were “multiple contradictory claims from the plaintiff.”
Morgan filed his lawsuit complaint on Feb. 24, 2020.