Deference to prison officials controls pen-pal ruling

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A federal appeals court decision upholding a Florida prison rule prohibiting inmates from soliciting pen pals shows the high degree of deference given to prison officials under existing U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

In 2004, the Florida Department of Corrections adopted the following rule:

“Inmates shall not use correspondence privileges to solicit or otherwise commercially advertise for money, goods, or services. For the purposes of this rule this includes advertising for pen-pals; inmates are not prohibiting from corresponding with pen pals, but shall not place ads soliciting pen pals. Inmates who post ads or have ads posted with the assistance of another person shall be subject to disciplinary action.”

The FDOC adopted the rule to prohibit inmates from using pen-pal services to defraud people. An FDOC official also claimed that the rule advanced prison security, because pen pals might give inmates money that could be used to bribe prison officials and order hits on other inmates.

Joy Perry, who operates two pen-pal services, and WriteAPrisoner.com sued FDOC officials in federal court, contending that the policy violated the First Amendment. A federal district court granted summary judgment to the FDOC.

Perry and WriteAPrisoner.com appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. On Dec. 22, a three-judge panel unanimously affirmed the lower court and ruled in favor of the prison officials in Perry v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections.

The panel acknowledged that two conflicting governing standards from two U.S. Supreme Court decisions involve regulation of prisoner mail. These standards derive from Procunier v. Martinez (1974)  and Turner v. Safley (1987).

In Procunier v. Martinez, the Court invalidated a California rule limiting outgoing prisoner correspondence, finding that prison officials could censor inmate mail only if they could show that the regulation furthered a substantial government interest and was no greater than necessary to maintain security.

However, in Turner v. Safley the Court upheld Missouri Department of Corrections restrictions on inmate mail, providing that prison officials could restrict inmate expression if they could show that their reason for doing so was reasonably related to legitimate penological concerns — such as safety or rehabilitation.

The standard from Procunier v. Martinez is seen as the high-water mark of prisoner rights, while the Safley standard dominates much of the case law.

The 11th Circuit panel found that the Safley standard governed in the Perry case, noting that “the cases that follow Martinez erode the high standard it set and, instead, show greater deference to prisoner administrators.”

The appeals court also said the correspondence in the instant case posed a direct threat to prison security and thus should be governed under the Safley standard. In applying that standard, courts evaluate four factors:

  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 impact 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.

The 11th Circuit panel determined that the pen-pal rule furthered legitimate interests in prison security. Regarding the second factor, the panel noted that the rule did not bar inmates from corresponding with pen pals; it simply prohibited inmates from soliciting them. However, the panel failed to acknowledge that the FDOC rule will make it much harder for inmates to have pen-pals.

Allowing inmates to solicit pen pals, the panel further said, would increase the volume of mail, thereby affecting the work of prison staff and perhaps requiring increased staffing. Finally, the appeals court said the rule was necessary to prevent inmates from defrauding people.

“The choice to permit inmates to still have pen pals shows that the FDOC rule is a well-reasoned response to a significant problem,” the panel wrote.

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