Court: Isolated mail interference doesn’t violate inmates’ rights

Monday, October 22, 2012

Inmates who allege that prison officials violate their First Amendment rights by blocking access to their mail must show more than a single, isolated incident, a federal appeals court has ruled. Instead, these inmates must show a pattern of interference with the mail.

Mark A. Nixon, an inmate at SCI Mahanoy in Frackville, Pa., contended that prison officials refused to deliver him mail in February because the mail included pages printed from Facebook. Nixon received an “unacceptable correspondence” form, in accordance with a prison rule that inmates could not receive material from Facebook.

Nixon filed an administrative appeal through prison channels. He said prison officials not only refused to deliver his mail but also destroyed it. In June, Nixon filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, contending these actions violated his First Amendment rights.

In July, a federal district court dismissed Nixon’s suit, saying he had failed to state a valid claim for relief. On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the lower court in its Oct. 12 opinion in Nixon v. Secretary Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

The appeals court recognized that inmates do not forfeit all of their constitutional rights, including the right to free speech, when they enter prison. However, the court also noted that “inmates’ right to receive and send mail can be restricted for legitimate penological interests.”

“Here, the District Court correctly determined that Nixon’s claim alleging a single, isolated interference with his personal mail was insufficient to constitute a First Amendment violation,” the court wrote.

The appeals court did not answer whether the continued destruction of mail simply because it is printed from Facebook would violate the First Amendment. The prevailing standard for inmate constitutional claims is whether the prison policy is reasonably related to legitimate penological concerns. This means prison officials would need to articulate some sort of safety reason for banning mail from Facebook.

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