No Constitutional Right to Commissary Prices

     CHICAGO (CN) – A group of Illinois inmates cannot proceed with federal claims that accuse prison officials and former Gov. Rod Blagojevich of violating their due-process rights by inflating the price of prison commissary goods beyond the state’s statutory cap, the 7th Circuit ruled.



     Illinois caps the markup on goods sold at prison commissaries to inmates to 25 percent over cost to cover employee wages and benefits. Tobacco products are capped at a 35 percent markup.
     But in November 2005, the Illinois Department of Corrections imposed a purported 3 percent mark-up that quickly increased to 7 percent.
     A June 2006 inspection by the Illinois auditor general discovered that the new charges had been in addition to the already-at-cap markups. The Department of Corrections did not reduce the markups, however, and said it would work with other state agencies “regarding a more refined interpretation of cost of goods.”
     Two years later, the auditor general made the same findings. Seven inmates incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet filed grievances that soon became federal class-action lawsuits. The inmates claimed the Department of Corrections and then-Gov. Blagojevich had violated their due-process rights by depriving them of a protected property interest.
     The suits were dismissed because the judges found no federal constitutional right to commissary access or to particular prices for commissary items. The Illinois constitutional claims were not addressed.
     Finding that “no pre-deprivation process could have predicted or prevented the alleged deprivation” and because “plaintiffs have not alleged the absence of adequate post-deprivation remedies,” the 7th Circuit affirmed.
     “Put another way, this case is really about a substantive violation of Illinois law, not about the procedures required before the plaintiffs can be deprived of a property interest. The plaintiffs’ grievance is about what was done (the mark-up in excess of 25%), not the procedures followed to do it,” Judge Daniel Manion wrote for a three-judge panel. “Federal courts do not sit to compel a state’s compliance with its own law.”
     But the state constitutional claims may still be viable, the court found. The state-law claims will be dismissed without prejudice so they can be refilled in Illinois state court.

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