Prison is not a fun place, because, obviously, nobody wants to be locked up.
But, just for the fun of it, think about this question: How much time would you willingly do behind bars and at what price?
Nobody asked that question to convicted felon Walter Brzowski, and he was far from being a volunteer in an experiment exploring that issue. But he’s the lab rat for the proposition presented to readers.
Like most prisoners, Brzowski wanted out of the joint. Unlike most prisoners, he had a valid basis for asking prison officials to let him go, filing 30 complaints that argued he had done his time.
He ultimately spent 23 months more in prison than the law required before a state appeals court ruled prison officials had wrongfully ignored his pleas.
So, again: How much compensation would you require to switch places with him?
A jury in Chicago federal court answered that question in Brzowski’s case, deciding that he is entitled to $731,000 in actual damages and another $10,000 in punitives.
Under the law, Brzowski’s lawyer is entitled to be paid attorney’s fees, an amount to be determined later by U.S. Judge Matthew Kennelly.
Illinois taxpayers will have the privilege of picking up both bills. Think of it as the cost of employing prison officials who apparently are so conditioned to listening to bogus inmate complaints that they ignore legitimate ones.
In this contest, the word “ignore” is appropriate. The jury found prison official Brenda Sigler displayed “deliberate indifference” to Brzowski’s repeated assertions that her calculation of his release date was “incorrect and flawed.”
“(Sigler) told him that his concern had been addressed and would not be revisited and that his release date would not be changed without another sentencing order,” Kennelly wrote in his lengthy opinion.
Sigler, the records office supervisor at the Pontiac Correctional Center, insists Brzowski was not due to be released until 2017. He insisted it was 2015.
Essentially, Brzowski’s plea presented a math problem complicated by questions of law that confounded DOC.
Here’s what happened.
In 2012, he was convicted of two criminal offenses, given a four-year sentence and allowed day-for-day good time. That means for every day he behaved behind bars, he was entitled to one day off his sentence.
So, four years was really two, under day-for-day.
By late 2013, Kennelly wrote, the well-behaved Brzowski was released early from his four-year sentence and a post-prison period of mandatory supervised release (MSR). Then the bad-behaved Brzowski violated the rules of his mandatory supervised release and was returned to prison “to serve the remainder of his MSR term.”
Fate intervened when, in 2015, the appellate court overturned his two convictions.
In a negotiated plea, prosecutors dropped one charge against Brzowski in exchange for his guilty plea to the other. He was resentenced to three years in prison and four years of MSR that was later reduced to two years.
A July 2015 court order credited Bzrowski with 1,452 days served and said he was to receive day-for-day good time credit.
The 1,452-days-served credit would appear to knock a big hole in Brzowski’s prison sentence, and, in fact, it did. When the appellate court ruled in his favor in 2017, it concluded Bzrowski “had only eight days remaining on his prison term” after his July 22, 2015, re-sentencing.
But instead of doing his eight days and being on his way, Brzowski spent two more years in prison while fighting prison bureaucrats and in the courts for his freedom.
Records supervisor Sigler rejected allegations that she dismissed Brzowski’s claims. But she admitted that she never sought a legal opinion to get an interpretation of Brzowski’s claims and that she relied on a federal court opinion for her conclusions while knowing that Brzowski was convicted under state law.
As a consequence, Kennelly said the jury “reasonably could infer that Brzowski’s prolonged incarceration was due to Sigler’s reckless or callous indifference to his complaints.”
The jury’s award is substantial. But Brzrowski hasn’t received the money yet because the case is still pending. It might be a while before he cashes in.
So was the time — more than $1,000 a day — worth the non-crime?
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-393-8251.