ACLU Files Lawsuit on Behalf of Louisiana Inmate Punished for Mother's Internet Ad Seeking Legal Help for Her Son

September 18, 2003 12:00 am

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BATON ROUGE, LA- In a federal lawsuit filed today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana charged officials at the state penitentiary at Angola with violating an inmate’s rights when they punished him because his mother posted an online advertisement seeking legal assistance for her son.

The ACLU said the lawsuit, filed on behalf of inmate Shannon Cassels, raises core issues of free speech, petition for redress of grievances and access to the courts.

“Prison officials have a history of discounting grievances by inmates and tend to make and enforce arbitrary rules that punish inmates for making such claims,” said Joe Cook, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “Inmates, however, do not leave all of their rights at the prison gate; this lawsuit asks the court to recognize that fact in addressing the injustice to Mr. Cassels, which could happen to any other inmate behind bars.”

According to ACLU legal papers, in September 2001 Cassels called his mother, Dorothy Bynog, to advise her that he had been disciplined as a result of an incident arising out of the prison’s refusal to provide medical treatment for a bona fide medical complaint. Cassels read the internal administrative complaint he had prepared over the phone to his mother, who subsequently placed an ad on the Internet at The ad sought legal assistance for her son to get relief from the abuse and retaliation by prison officers as a result of the incident. Also, those reading the ad were asked to write to Angola Warden Burl Cain.

A year later, someone notified Angola Investigative Services about the ad. That same day, Cassels was placed in disciplinary lockdown, also known as “the dungeon,” pending an investigation for violating Disciplinary Rules 30k and 30w.

According to Angola documents, Rule 30k prohibits “[s]preading rumors about an employee, visitor, guest, or inmate” and Rule 30w prohibits “any behavior not specifically enumerated herein that may impair or threaten the security or stability of the unit or well-being of an employee, visitor, guest, inmate or their families.”

Cook said that prison officials failed to abide by their own rules by immediately placing Cassels in lockdown although he posed no danger to the operation of the prison and by failing to review the documentation and investigate in a timely way to confirm the reasonableness or applicability of the allegation prompting lockdown.

During the questioning of Cassels, officials even threatened to press charges against his mother and prevent her from visiting her son for a year because she placed the advertisement online. As a result of these threats, Bynog removed the ad.

Officials subsequently ruled that Cassels, with the aid of his mother, had knowingly spread false rumors about prison employees, including Warden Burl Cain, in the administrative complaint he had filed. His appeals to that complaint were denied, and he was sentenced to “working cell block” with loss of pay, where he remained for almost six months.

The ACLU lawsuit said that prison rules are so vague that officials have virtually unfettered discretion to discipline and punish inmates. The lawsuit seeks, among other things, to have these rules declared unconstitutional, to regain lost salary and property Cassels was deprived of without due process, and to prevent prison officials from retaliating against Cassels for exercising his rights.

Cooperating attorneys in this case are Jane Johnson and George Frazier of New Orleans.

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