Amek bin-Rilla v. Israel

Decision Date01 July 1983
Docket NumberNo. 82-1337-W,BIN-RILLA,82-1337-W
Citation335 N.W.2d 384,113 Wis.2d 514
PartiesAMEK, a/k/a James R. Preston, Petitioner, v. Thomas R. ISRAEL, Warden, Waupun Correctional Institution, and Bronson C. La Follette, Attorney General, Respondents.
CourtWisconsin Supreme Court

Sh. Amek bin-Rilla, pro se.

Bronson C. La Follette, Atty. Gen. and David J. Becker, Asst. Atty. Gen., for respondents.

Ben Kempinen, Legal Assistance to Institutionalized Persons Program, Madison, Elena A. Cappella, Asst. State Public Defender, for the Office of the State Public Defender, amicus curiae.


This is a review of an unpublished decision of the court of appeals dated July 22 1982, denying Amek bin-Rilla's petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The court of appeals, relying on sec. 782.02, Stats.1981-82, 1 denied the requested relief of habeas corpus because the petitioner's challenge to certain conditions of his confinement did not challenge, as a petition for habeas corpus must, the legality of the order or judgment of commitment. 2 We conclude that the facts in the petition establish a claim for relief, and we remand the matter to the circuit court for Dodge county for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

This petition, like many pro se petitions, is difficult to understand. The petition states that petitioner is presently confined in the Waupun Correctional Institution in Dodge County, Wisconsin, that the petition for a writ of habeas corpus is based upon the illegality of "conditions of confinement," and that the circuit court for Dodge county "refuses to process the same." Although petitioner seeks to be released from "illegal state custody," petitioner also states that his postconviction motion, filed in the circuit court for Milwaukee county, was denied, and he does not challenge the validity of the judgment of conviction or the jurisdiction of the sentencing court.

When read with other documents in the record, the petition appears to allege four violations of constitutional rights contrary to the first, fifth, and fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution: (1) that the prison administration has confiscated petitioner's papers and other materials relating to judicial proceedings; (2) that the circuit court's denial of petitioner's postconviction motion denied him access to the courts; (3) that the circuit court's denial of petitioner's postconviction motion denied him his constitutional right to freedom of religion; and (4) that the prison administration seized some of petitioner's papers.

The court of appeals construed the petition as contending that: "(1) Dodge county officials refuse to process a petition for a writ of habeas corpus; (2) the Milwaukee county circuit court denied a postconviction motion; and (3) personal property was illegally confiscated by prison officials." It denied the petition because none of these allegations challenges "the legality of the order or judgment of commitment."

In the order granting review of the decision of the court of appeals, this court stated that the only issue it would consider on review is whether "habeas corpus is the proper remedy under Wisconsin law for a claim that the constitutional rights of an inmate have been abridged by conditions of his confinement." The United States Supreme Court has not yet resolved this question, Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 562, n. 6, 99 S.Ct. 1861, 1886, n. 6, 60 L.Ed.2d 447 (1979), and neither has this court. 3

The state argues that conditions of confinement claims are not cognizable on habeas corpus. By conditions of confinement claims, we mean claimed denials of rights after sentence is imposed and while the person is in custody. Petitioner did not address this argument, but this court has received excellent assistance on petitioner's behalf from both the State Public Defender and Legal Assistance to Institutionalized Persons Program (LAIP), University of Wisconsin Law School, who filed amicus curiae briefs. 4

The question of whether a challenge to conditions of confinement is cognizable on habeas corpus is one aspect of the more general question of whether the court of appeals erred in dismissing this petition because the facts alleged in it did not appear to fit neatly within the remedy which the petitioner selected. We will first discuss the general question.

Prisoners ask trial and appellate courts to address or remedy a broad range of claims, from constitutional, statutory, and administrative rule violations to tort claims, contract claims, and family matters. As we noted previously, pro se petitions are often difficult to decipher. Before considering the prisoner's request on its merits, the court must determine what facts are alleged, how the claim might be categorized by legal title, and what relief the petitioner seeks. It is not always easy to answer these preliminary questions from the documents the prisoner submits. Both amicus briefs underscore the need for a system to identify the nature of the issues raised and relief sought by prisoners in pro se petitions, as well as for flexibility in processing those papers determined to raise nonfrivolous conditions of confinement issues. 5 This court and others have wrestled with the problem of developing an efficient system to screen and evaluate pro se petitions. See Report of the Wisconsin Supreme Court Committee on Pro Se Prisoner Petitions (June 1980); Office of State Public Defender v. Circuit Court for Dodge Co., 104 Wis.2d 579, 312 N.W.2d 767 (1981).

Although this court's efforts have not resulted in adoption of rules prescribing procedures that circuit courts should follow in handling prisoners' pro se complaints, this court has set forth some guidelines for considering these complaints. We have long adhered to the view that pro se prisoner complaints, whether offered in petition or any other form, including letters to judges, must be construed liberally to determine if the complaint states any facts giving rise to a cause of action. In State ex rel. Terry v. Traeger, 60 Wis.2d 490, 497, 211 N.W.2d 4 (1973), we explained the necessity for construing pro se complaints liberally to do substantial justice:

"We recognize that the confinement of the prisoner and the necessary reasonable regulations of the prison, in addition to the fact that many prisoners are unlettered and most are indigent, make it difficult for a prisoner to obtain legal assistance or to know and observe jurisdictional and procedural requirements in submitting his grievances to a court. Accordingly, we must follow a liberal policy in judging the sufficiency of pro se complaints filed by unlettered and indigent prisoners."

Our policy of liberally construing pro se prisoner petitions is consistent with this state's policy of construing civil pleadings liberally. We have consistently held that a complaint in a civil action should not be dismissed as legally insufficient unless it is clear that under no circumstances can the plaintiff recover. This court will "affirm an order dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim only if, upon a review of the allegations contained therein, it appears to a certainty that no relief can be granted under any set of facts which plaintiffs could prove in support of them." Quesenberry v. Milwaukee County, 106 Wis.2d 685, 690, 317 N.W.2d 468 (1982). See sec. 802.02(6), Stats. 1981-82.

In ordinary civil cases, as in pro se prisoner petition cases, we look to the facts pleaded, not to the label given the papers filed, to determine whether the party should be granted relief. State ex rel. Furlong v. Waukesha Cty. Ct., 47 Wis.2d 515, 522, 177 N.W.2d 333 (1970) (petition for a writ of prohibition treated as a petition for writ of habeas corpus); Beane v. City of Sturgeon Bay, 112 Wis.2d 600, 334 N.W.2d 235 (1983). 6

We re-emphasize today what we have said previously. A court presented with a prisoner's pro se document seeking relief must look to the facts stated in the document to determine whether the petitioner may be entitled to any relief if the facts alleged are proved. Neither a trial nor an appellate court should deny a prisoner's pleading based on its label rather than on its allegations. 7 If necessary the court should relabel the prisoner's pleading and proceed from there.

Liberally construing the petition presented in this case, we determine that the petitioner asserts facts which, if proved, might entitle him to relief. Petitioner claims that the prison authorities have taken legal papers from him and have refused to return the papers, denying him his right of access to the courts. We have recognized that a prisoner's constitutional right of access to courts, "tempered by reasonable regulations ... remain[s] inviolate." State ex rel. Terry v. Traeger, 60 Wis.2d 490, 496, 211 N.W.2d 4 (1973). See also State ex rel. Thomas v. State, 55 Wis.2d 343, 352, 357, 198 N.W.2d 675 (1972). Accordingly, we conclude that regardless of whether the petitioner incorrectly labeled his paper as a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, this petition seeking return of legal papers states a claim for which relief may be granted.

The appropriate remedy in this case for the claim of illegal conditions of confinement, if proved, would not be release from custody. The remedy would be a judicially mandated change in the illegal conditions, or an injunction against the practices, and possibly an award of damages. Crawford v. Bell, 599 F.2d 890 (9th Cir.1979); Cook v. Hanberry, 596 F.2d 658, 660 (5th Cir.1979), revising, 592 F.2d 248 (5th Cir.1979), cert. denied, 442 U.S. 932, 99 S.Ct. 2866, 61 L.Ed.2d 301. These remedies suggest that this petition properly could be construed as a petition for a writ of mandamus, 8 to compel the prison authorities to return the papers or to compel the circuit court for Dodge county to accept jurisdiction of the petitioner's complaint. This petition...

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