Another federal court rejects inmate challenge to pen-pal limits

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Some federal courts are taking a dim view of pen pals for inmates, at least in some respects.

In the latest decision favoring restrictions on prison pen-pal correspondence, a federal district court in Missouri ruled Jan. 4 that a prison policy prohibiting inmates from soliciting pen pals online does not violate the First Amendment. “It is intuitive that the best way to prevent fraud would be to remove the tool used to commit it,” the court reasoned.

The decision follows a recent trend in the federal courts upholding such policies. The 11th Circuit rejected a challenge to a similar policy in Florida in December 2011. In July 2011, the 7th Circuit upheld a similar policy in Indiana.

The Missouri Department of Corrections passed that state’s policy in 2005 after hearing evidence of inmates defrauding members of the public. In one instance, an inmate apparently received more than $30,000 from someone after the inmate made a false promise to meet the person upon release.

The policy says:

“Offenders are not authorized to participate in, join or have their names posted on any website with the sole purpose of pen pals.

Offenders are not prohibited from corresponding with pen pals, but shall not place ads soliciting pen pals.

Offenders are prohibited from correspondence or materials from persons or groups marketing advertising services or from subscribing to advertising services.

This does not apply to those websites proclaiming the offender’s innocence, i.e., freexxx.com, etc.

Offender pen pal websites will be monitored to ensure offenders are not participating in offender websites.

Offenders who post ads or have ads posted … shall be subject to a conduct violation.”

Inmate Vincent L. Argentino, doing time at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, contended the policy violated his First Amendment rights after he was cited for violating it. But U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Missouri Scott O. Wright rejected the First Amendment claims in Argentino v. Dormire. Wright noted that the court had rejected similar arguments in two other lawsuits filed by inmates.

Wright relied on those decisions, but then examined the policy under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on prisoner constitutional rights, Turner v. Safley (1987). In that ruling, the Court said prison officials don’t violate inmates’ constitutional rights if their regulations are reasonably related to legitimate penological concerns,  such as security or rehabilitation. Turner v. Safley set out four factors for evaluating such regulations:

  1. Whether there is a rational connection between the prison regulation and the legitimate penological interest.
  2. Whether there are alternative avenues for the inmates to exercise their constitutional rights.
  3. Whether the policy has an effect on guards, inmates and prison resources.
  4. Whether the prison rule is an exaggerated response and whether there are alternative means to address the underlying problem.

In Argentino v. Dormire, Wright found that all four factors cut in favor of the prison officials.

The policy furthered officials’ reasonable desire to limit inmate fraud. Where Argentino argued that the policy kept him from communicating with others, Wright said that “isolation from the world-at-large is a fact of prison life.” A prisoner still may communicate with pen-pals, Wright added, but “merely may not pay a website to solicit outside individuals for him.”

The third factor also favored of officials, because without the policy prison staff would have to spend additional investigative time looking into fraud complaints. And Wright sided with prison officials on the fourth factor, finding that there really weren’t sufficient alternatives to the policy.

Argentino claimed that prison officials could penalize all fraud, review all mail or penalize only inmates who actually committed fraud online. But Wright said these alternatives “do not prevent fraud from occurring in the first place.”

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