South Carolina Prison Guard Fired for Whistle-Blowing About Inmate Mistreatment

Michael Billioni worked in the central control area of a prison where he could see all the security camera footage–past and present. He saw something disturbing, told his wife (who told a reporter), denied to his boss that he told anyone, later confessed, and then was fired. Now, he’s suing, claiming that he had a First Amendment right to disclose what he witnessed.

Back in 2013, an inmate at the prison died while in custody. The official statement from the prison was that the inmate was trying to drown himself, that he was “very uncooperative,” that he hit his head on his cell wall, and that guards tried to restrain him for his safety. When they later noticed that he was unresponsive, EMTs attempted CPR but were unable to revive the inmate.

The York County Detention Center in York, South Carolina

Michael wasn’t working that day, but he heard the prison’s official statement and didn’t believe it. When he went to work the next day, he checked the footage. On the video, Michael saw one guard punch the inmate 12 times, and he saw a taser setting used that was “concerning.” He also saw EMTs never touch the inmate.

Michael told his wife, who told a reporter at a local news station. When that reporter started asking questions to the prison about the inmate’s death, the prison conducted its own investigation. Michael told his boss that, while he had seen the video, he did not tell anyone. Later, he confessed via email that was “responsible solely for the mess” and that he “accepts full responsibility” for his actions. He was later fired.

Michael sued, claiming that he was fired in retaliation for exercising his First Amendment rights. Last month, a federal judge preliminarily agreed with Michael and is allowing the case to proceed to trial. The court found that Michael (1) was speaking as private citizen, not as an employee in the course of his ordinary employment; (2) raised a “matter of public concern”; (3) that the public’s interest in hearing Michael’s speech outweighed any actual or potential disruption at the prison; and (4) that Michael might have been fired because of his speech. The court also rejected the prison’s qualified-immunity defense. The case will go to trial likely later this year.

Case: Billioni v. York Cty., No. 14-CV-03060 (D.S.C. June 20, 2017) (opinion here)

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