Prison should have let inmate send manuscript, judge rules

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Prison officials in Northern California failed to convince a federal district court judge that they had legitimate reasons to refuse to allow an inmate to send out portions of his autobiography. In one of the few rulings to make the distinction between ingoing and outgoing prisoner mail, the court said there was a higher First Amendment-based standard for protecting outgoing prisoner mail as opposed to incoming.

Lonnie Donell Perkins sued in federal court after California Department of Corrections officials and officials at Pelican Bay State Prison refused to allow Perkins to mail selections from his autobiography, presumably to a publisher, though court records don’t say. Prison officials claimed the work included accounts of gang-related incidents in prison and could cause security concerns. One of the prison officials declared that the manuscript described gang activity that Perkins had been involved in, which related to other inmates and victims that occurred during his incarceration.” The official also declared that a prospective book could “be used to further the promotion of gang activity.”

However, prison officials and their attorneys made a critical mistake in the litigation. They failed to introduce a copy of the manuscript. According to U.S. District Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton in her Sept. 29 opinion in Perkins v. Chrones, “defendants have failed to carry their burden of showing that barring plaintiff’s autobiography from the mail furthered the institution’s interest in controlling gang activity.”

Crucial to Hamilton’s reasoning was that the regulation of outgoing prisoner mail was subject to a higher standard than incoming prisoner mail.

Regulations on mail coming into a prison must pass muster under the rational-basis standard of Turner v. Safley (1987), which requires prison officials to show that their actions affecting prisoner expression are “reasonably related to legitimate penological concerns,” such as safety and rehabilitation. This standard is quite friendly to prison officials and often leads to the dismissal of inmate claims.

However, restrictions on outgoing prisoner mail must meet a more stringent standard from an earlier prisoner free-expression decision, Procunier v. Martinez (1974). That decision prohibits censorship unless the regulation furthers a legitimate penological interest and the limitation on First Amendment freedoms is no greater than necessary to further the government interest. The standard in Procunier v. Martinez is much more prisoner-friendly than the Turner standard and is considered the high point of decisions protecting prisoner rights.

The Procunier standard applies to outgoing prisoner mail because “outgoing correspondence from prisoners does not, by its very nature, pose a serious threat to internal prison security and order,” Hamilton wrote.

She also noted that the defendants had filed a motion for summary judgment and bore the burden of proving that there were no genuine issues of material fact regarding the autobiography and its impact. “Here, defendants’ failure to provide the autobiography itself in support of their motion makes that burden difficult to carry,” she wrote.

Hamilton’s ruling means that Perkin’s First Amendment claim stays alive, at least for now. Prison officials could file another motion within 30 days showing how the release of the autobiography would damage prison security and promote gang-related activity.

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