Ex-inmate’s complaints over jail mail dismissed

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A former inmate at Bradley County (Tenn.) Justice Center did not have a First Amendment right to a mail-drop box or to force the jail to deliver the mail six days a week, a federal district court judge has ruled.

Kevin Argo, formerly an inmate at the jail, sued Sheriff Tim Gobble and Capt. Gabe Thomas in federal court, asserting a variety of claims under the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, the 14th Amendment right to due process and the Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. Among his complaints included allegedly inadequate mail procedures, lack of a law library and a lack of toilet paper.

On June 3, U.S. District Judge Curtis L. Collier dismissed these claims in Argo v. Gobble. Addressing the law-library claim, Collier said Argo had failed to show how the lack of lawbooks hampered his ability to pursue a legal claim. In Lewis v. Casey (1996), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an inmate’s denial of access to the courts claim based on the lack of a law library fails unless the inmate can show that he was hindered in pursuing a legal claim.

“Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate any prejudice to any litigation,” Collier wrote. “Accordingly, he has failed to demonstrate a constitutional violation.”

Collier then addressed the First Amendment claims related to the mail services. Argo claimed that the jail needed a drop-box in which prisoners could deposit mail because as things stand, prisoners must leave mail under their cell doors and it’s not always picked up. He also complained that delivering mail on five days instead of six deprives inmates of their rights. Collier dismissed these claims, noting that the Supreme Court’s standard in Turner v. Safley (1987) requires that in establishing prison practices, the prison simply show a reasonable relationship between a rule or procedure and a legitimate penological concern, such as security or safety. (It was not clear in the opinion what that concern was.)

Argo’s claim didn’t show how the lack of a drop box or the five-day mail system actually deprived inmates of their First Amendment rights, Collier concluded, adding that Argo “has not alleged he suffered a specific injury as a result of the procedure regarding mail delivery.”

Collier also dismissed the Eighth Amendment claim regarding a lack of toilet paper, characterizing this as a minor  deprivation.

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