Federal appeals court says it’s OK to open inmate’s outgoing mail

Friday, September 10, 1999

The warden of a Virginia prison did not violate an inmate's First Amendment rights by opening and inspecting his outgoing mail, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Inmate Frank Altizer sued George Deeds, warden of the Keen Mountain Correctional Center, claiming that Deeds' practice of examining the contents of outgoing mail without individual suspicion infringed on his First Amendment rights.

Prison officials said their policy was necessary to further security concerns. They noted that Altizer in the past had attempted to mail a homemade knife to a federal district court employee.

A federal judge sided with Altizer on that legal issue, though the judge only awarded the inmate nominal damages in the amount of $1.

The judge applied the standard articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1974 prisoner case Procunier v. Martinez. In Martinez, the high court ruled that “prison officials must show that a regulation authorizing mail censorship furthers one or more of the substantial governmental interests of security, order and rehabilitation.”

The Supreme Court also noted that outgoing mail raises fewer security concerns than incoming mail.

On Sept. 7, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court's decision in Altizer v. Deeds, finding that the district court had applied the wrong legal analysis. According to the 4th Circuit, the lower court should have applied the standard from a 1987 prisoner First Amendment case, Turner v. Safley.

In Safley, the high court wrote that a regulation impinging on inmates' First Amendment rights is constitutional as long as it is “reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest.”

The 4th Circuit emphasized the special context of prisons when reviewing Altizer. “There is little doubt that the opening and inspecting of an individual's mail by a governmental entity would raise grave First Amendment concerns outside the prison context,” the court wrote.

However, the court said that “without question, the opening and inspecting of an inmate's outgoing mail is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests and, therefore, constitutional.”

The 4th Circuit drew a distinction between censorship of mail and inspection of mail, citing another U.S. Supreme Court case for the proposition that “freedom from censorship is not equivalent to freedom from inspection or perusal.”

The appeals court concluded: “Thus, although an inmate's First Amendment rights may be violated when his outgoing mail is censored, his First Amendment rights are not violated when his outgoing mail is simply opened and inspected for, among other things, contraband, as was the case here.”

“This is a clear victory for the commonwealth and the Department of Corrections,” David Botkins, spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley, said. “In Virginia, staff run our prisons, not the inmates. Inmates cannot use the First Amendment in an effort to circumvent important security policy.”

Altizer represented himself in the case. Steven H. Goldblatt, director of the appellate litigation program at Georgetown University, filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Altizer. Goldblatt could not be reached for comment.