Federal appeals panel: Inmate has no right to assist other prisoners

Tuesday, August 15, 2000

A federal appeals court panel has rejected the First Amendment claim
of a Colorado inmate who alleged he was retaliated against for assisting
minority inmates accused of violating prison rules.

Craig Bryan Northington, an inmate at Limon Correctional Facility,
sued several Colorado Department of Corrections officials in 1994, alleging
that the officials had engaged in a pattern of retaliation for his First
Amendment-protected activity. Northington served as an authorized inmate
representative, a position in which he assisted other inmates on disciplinary

Northington, who has filed several federal lawsuits against prison
officials, claimed in this suit that he was retaliated against for assisting
several Hispanic inmates. In his suit, he claimed that officials wrongfully
opened his mail, subjected him to urine tests, seized his legal materials and
searched his cell a disproportionate number of times.

After a lower court dismissed his lawsuit, Northington appealed to the
10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

On Aug. 10, a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit unanimously
affirmed the lower court ruling in Northington v.

The panel quoted a 1990 10th Circuit decision,
Smith v. Maschner, for the
proposition that an inmate “does not have a protected interest in providing
legal representation to other inmates.”

The three-judge panel wrote that it was “bound to follow this prior
circuit authority.”

The panel concluded that “the actions Northington ties to his aid of
other inmates cannot support a claim of retaliation for the exercise of his own
constitutional rights.”

In a footnote, the panel acknowledged that the federal courts are
split on whether prisoners have a First Amendment right to assist fellow
inmates. “We recognize that other federal courts have held that, if a state
creates a position such as inmate representative, it must allow the
representative to engage in his duties without fear of retaliation,” the panel

Jonathan Willett, Northington’s attorney, said that “in all
likelihood” he would appeal the decision. He said he would probably seek full
panel review from the 10th Circuit and then, if necessary, appeal to the U.S.
Supreme Court.

Calls to the Colorado attorney general’s office, which represented the
prison officials, were not returned.

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