Federal appeals court: Letter-reading officials violated Montana inmate’s rights

Tuesday, November 9, 1999

Prison officials violated the First Amendment rights of an inmate by punishing him after he sent a letter containing legal advice to a fellow inmate, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Kevin Murphy, who was trained as an inmate legal clerk at the Montana State Prison, was disciplined in 1995 after prison officials read his letter to inmate Pat Tracy. Murphy, who had provided legal assistance to Tracy in the past, wrote his letter after learning that Tracy had been charged with assaulting a prison guard.

In his February 1995 letter, Murphy told Tracy not to plead guilty because the guard Tracy was alleged to have assaulted “has a personal agenda to punish and harass inmates.” Murphy wrote that he could get “at least 100 witnesses” to testify about the guard's abusive treatment of inmates.

Sending the letter was the only way Murphy could contact Tracy, who was a maximum-security inmate.

After officials read the letter (pursuant to prison policy), they cited Murphy for violating prison rules against insolence, interference with due-process hearings and conduct which disrupts or interferes with the security or orderly operation of the institution.

At a hearing, Murphy was found guilty of violating two rules and received a suspended sentence of 10 days detention.

In October 1995, Murphy sued several prison officials, contending they had violated his First Amendment rights for punishing him for the content of his letter. A federal district court dismissed his suit in September 1997.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in Murphy v. Shaw, finding that Murphy had a First Amendment right to assist other inmates in legal matters.

The 9th Circuit's Nov. 4 opinion cited its 1985 decision Rizzo v. Dawson for the proposition that “the provision of legal assistance to a fellow inmate is an activity protected by the First Amendment.”

The 9th Circuit analyzed the legal issues in Murphy's lawsuit under the standard articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1987 decision Turner v. Safley. In Turner, the high court held that “when a prison regulation impinges on inmates' constitutional rights, the regulation is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.”

The U.S. Supreme Court instructed courts to examine four factors in determining the Turner standard:

  • Whether the governmental objective is legitimate and neutral, and whether the prison regulation is rationally related to that objective.
  • Whether there are alternate means of exercising the rights that remain open to prison inmates.
  • What impact accommodation of inmates' rights would have on guards, other inmates, and prison resources.
  • The availability of obvious, easy alternatives to the challenged prison regulation.

The 9th Circuit in the Murphy case said that the government had a “legitimate” interest in maintaining security and order. However, the appeals court wrote that prison officials' “interest in security and order is at a low ebb when the correspondence in question is legal advice relating to a pending or potential case.”

The appeals court wrote that “it appears that the 'logical nexus' here between the governmental interest and the application of the rules to law clerk correspondence is weak.”

As for the second prong of the Turner test, the 9th Circuit found that “it does not appear that Murphy has any alternate means to exercise his right to render legal assistance to maximum security inmates who, like Tracy, he is not permitted to visit.”

The 9th Circuit also noted that “the impact on prison employees and resources would be minimal” if the prison officials adopted a rule prohibiting guards who interact with inmates from reading inmate correspondence.

The appeals court ordered the lower court to grant summary judgment in Murphy's favor and to craft “an appropriate remedy.”

Jeffrey T. Renz, Murphy's attorney and a professor at the University of Montana School of Law, said that the “appropriate remedy” would not include monetary damages.

“Murphy did not seek monetary damages,” Renz said. “He sought a declaration that he was engaging in protected speech and that the disciplinary complaints against him be purged from his record.”

Renz said the 9th Circuit's opinion was “important because it means that inmates can give each other either official or unofficial advice in cases.”

Mike Cronin, public and victim information specialist for the Montana Department of Corrections, said: “We disagree with the 9th Circuit and we will appeal.”