Inmate sues sheriff, others over treatment while in isolation; Cahillane seeks to dismiss case

  • Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction in Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 9/14/2022 8:11:51 PM

NORTHAMPTON — An inmate in Connecticut is suing Sheriff Patrick Cahillane and several officials at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction, claiming that his rights were violated when he was placed in isolation for more than two months after he allegedly smuggled drugs into the facility.

On Aug. 29, attorney Charles Maguire, general counsel for the Hampshire County Sheriff’s Office, informed a judge that he would represent the defendants and that he had mailed a copy of a motion to dismiss the lawsuit to the plaintiff, Thomas Wojcik, at Cheshire Correctional Institute. Wojcik is representing himself in the case.

The motion to dismiss was not yet on file in court this week, but Maguire provided a copy to the Gazette. The motion describes the jail staff’s investigation into Wojcik’s alleged smuggling of Suboxone and refers to the lawsuit as “a hodgepodge of legal buzz words cobbled together and dressed up as claims.”

In a complaint filed May 16 in Hampshire Superior Court, Wojcik alleges cruel and unusual punishment while he was a pretrial detainee, writing that numerous violations of his rights resulted in him serving 64 days of isolation from Jan. 7 to March 11. He claims that he was punished before a finding that he had done anything wrong, that he was denied the required breaks from isolation every 10 days and that the administrative process was not run properly. Maguire disputes all those points.

The word “disciplinary” is at the center of the lawsuit. Wojcik argues that he was entitled to certain legal rights because he was in “disciplinary isolation.” Maguire wrote that Wojcik, although isolated the whole time, was not in a “disciplinary isolation” status until early February — instead, he was under changing statuses, including “awaiting action/room restriction” and “pre-hearing detention” — and that all of his rights were afforded to him.

Wojcik was arrested in October 2019 by Massachusetts State Police troopers inside a stranger’s home on Aberdeen Road in Goshen. He was the subject of a fugitive-from-justice warrant on burglary, robbery and larceny charges. Connecticut records show convictions dating back to 2013 and that he is currently in prison for larceny.

Wojcik is seeking $19,200 — $300 per day in isolation — in compensatory damages plus court costs, and another $36,000 in punitive damages. He also wants a court order to ban the use of the “awaiting action/room restriction” status to start isolation before any finding of wrongdoing.

Maguire, in his motion to dismiss, called the lawsuit “fatally belated” since, he argues, Wojcik missed his window of opportunity to sue on most issues. On other matters, Maguire wrote that Wojcik is asserting rights that “are nowhere to be found” in the law or misstating the facts.

Alleged drugs in legal mail

On Jan. 7, according to the lawsuit, Wojcik received legal documents in the mail at the jail and an officer said they would leaf through them together to search for contraband. At that time, he wrote, he felt the urge to use the bathroom and told the officer the search needed to wait. He claims that the officer left with the mail while he was away, despite written policies requiring an inmate to be present when their legal mail is opened.

In his motion to dismiss, Maguire argues that the envelope contained eight strips of Suboxone with a high monetary value. Maguire does, however, acknowledge that officers opened Wojcik’s legal mail outside his presence “by accident on two separate occasions” later on.

Wojcik alleges that two corrections officers approached him hours after the incident, “slammed” him into a wall, handcuffed him and brought him to the Restrictive Housing Unit, where he was strip-searched without explanation.

“I do not believe, under these circumstances, it is improper at all, the strip search part,” Maguire told the Gazette. As far as the “slam” into the wall, he said that Wojcik “doesn’t claim to have suffered so much as a chipped nail in the search,” so the court is not required to “assess the credibility of this use-of-force claim.”

He said, based on his 40-year track record of winning cases for the department, the lawsuit will “never” end up in court.

“The whole thing sticks in my craw,” Maguire said. “I take these things seriously because I don’t want the court’s time wasted any further.”

Different statuses,same isolation

From Jan. 7-14, Wojcik claims, he was “subjected to Disciplinary Detention/an Isolation Cell with no proper clothing for warmth or any proper bedding material(s).” On Jan. 14, jail staff informed him that drugs had been found in his mail the previous week.

Wojcik went through the administrative process to receive a sanction, which involved a hearing that was rescheduled twice at his request, and then appealed his guilty finding. In early February, Cahillane denied the appeal, initiating the 30-day punishment, according to court filings.

In his lawsuit, Wojcik argues that he was entitled to a 24-hour break every 10 days, but Maguire countered that his changing statuses came with different rights under the law.

“Every day of Wojcik’s confinement was perfectly lawful and in precise conformance” with facility policy and the state regulations for jails, Maguire wrote, adding that Wojcik is “stacking” periods of time with different statuses to come up with an incorrect total for the amount of time that he should have been entitled to breaks and other accommodations.

Wojcik claims to suffer from a “severe mental illness” and alleges that he was not given mental health treatment during isolation, even after learning that he had lost a relative in the war in Ukraine. Maguire wrote that the only evidence of Wojcik’s mental illness was “several Inmate Request Slips squawking about (the jail’s) disciplinary process.”

The motion includes quotes from Wojcik’s requests — describing himself at times as “freezing,” “not doing very well in my head,” “crying not eating,” and having “a lot of mental health issues” — which Maguire wrote were actually requests for help getting out of isolation.

“The case law is that there has to be a diagnosis, not a self-diagnosis,” Maguire said. “Preferably by a psychologist, and that has to be on record.”

In his lawsuit, Wojcik describes a hearing 20 days into his isolation at which jail staff allegedly told him that he was responsible for proving himself innocent and that he did not need access to the law library because he could craft a defense on his own. Maguire wrote that Wojcik had ample access and that Cahillane afforded him more assistance than required.

The other defendants in the suit are Capt. Matthew Garvulenski, Capt. Eric Jacque, Lt. Andrew Robidoux and records specialist Beth Stetzel.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.
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