2 inmates lose phone-related lawsuits in federal court

Friday, February 10, 2012

Inmates don’t lose all their First Amendment rights when they enter the penal system, but they certainly don’t retain many. Two recent federal court decisions drive home this point. The cases involved expensive phone calls for an inmate in Arkansas and the denial of a cell phone and typewriter to one in California.

In the Arkansas case, a federal appeals court rejected an inmate’s First Amendment-based claim that the Arkansas Department of Corrections and the company it contracts with to provide phone service violated the First Amendment by charging too much for phone calls.

The Arkansas Department of Corrections has a contract with Global Tel Link in which GTL provides telephone service to Arkansas inmates and pays the prison system 45% of GTL’s gross revenue on prisoners’ calls. The commission payments amount to more than $2 million per year.

Inmate Winston Holloway contended that high phone charges violated his First Amendment rights because they chilled him from making as many calls as he would have liked. “A ten-minute interstate call costs $10.43, plus taxes and any other governmental charges,” said Steve Shults, one of Holloway’s attorneys.

After a federal district court granted summary judgment to the prison system, Holloway appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

On Feb. 2, a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit affirmed the lower court, ruling against the inmate in Holloway v. Magness. The panel noted that the prisons had no obligation under the First Amendment to provide phone service at all. And, said the panel, “[j]ust as [Arkansas Department of Corrections] had no First Amendment obligation to provide any telephone service, it had no obligation to provide that service at a particular cost to users.”

Furthermore, the 8th Circuit deemed that Arkansas inmates had other ways to communicate besides making phone calls, including through personal visits and mail. “Holloway simply failed to allege and prove facts showing a significant infringement of his right to communicate with the outside world,” the opinion said.

The California case involved an inmate’s claim that he had a right to a typewriter and cell phone. Prisoner Michael L. Overton of San Luis Obispo contended that prison officials had violated his First Amendment rights by denying him both. The opinion did not say which prison was involved.

“There is no constitutional right to the use of a typewriter,” U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of California William Alsup wrote in his Feb. 1 opinion in Overton v. Warden. “There is also no constitutional right to have a cell phone. While prisoners have a First Amendment right to communicate with persons outside prison walls, access to a telephone, which plaintiff indicates he has, is a sufficient means of honoring that right.”

Alsup added that prisoner use of cell phones could present security risks.

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