A Prisoner`s Mail is Protected Under the Constitution

Few things are more precious to a prisoner than mail from friends and family. So when a prison rejects incoming mail, it`s a personal blow to a prisoner. But it`s also a constitutional issue: The U.S. Constitution protects a prisoner`s right to correspond with other, including family, friends, and the news media. This also includes incoming and outgoing mail.

However, prisons can (and do) reject incoming mail to prisoners on a daily basis. Ask any prisoner and he`ll tell you about mail rejected for all sorts of crazy reason. But as long as prison staff have a valid reason, rejecting mail is perfectly fine, according to the courts.

Often, prisoners fight these rejections by claiming that the prison`s policy is too harsh or too arbitrary. Maybe that`s true. But that`s a difficult challenge to win. The federal courts are very reluctant to interfere in how staff runs its prisons. They cite cases from the era when prisons were dangerous places, saying that staff have a monumental challenge in keeping prisoners and staff safe. While the Supreme Court has held that harsh prison policies are acceptable as long as they impose the “least restrictive means” necessary to achieve their purposes, it`s rare that a court ever finds a prison policy exceeds this elusive standard. See Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987).

An effective way to challenge a prison`s rejection of incoming mail is to challenge how it rejected your mail. Before we get into this, let me make one important point: You can only sue for harm caused to you, not the person who sent the mail. If the sender was also harmed, then they must file their own challenge, which is often done a different way than the way a prisoner must do so.

For prisoners, there a few angles of attack. The most commonly known claim is that the rejection of mail violated the First Amendment right to free speech or to access the courts (if it involved legal mail). It`s a good claim, but it involves a ton of substantive arguments, deep stuff that most prisoners don`t have the ability to do without a lawyer. Still make the First Amendment claim, but also try some other angles.

In order for a prison to reject incoming mail, even if it`s “contraband,” staff must provide a rejection notice to the prisoners and the sender, giving reasons why it was rejected and an opportunity to challenge the rejection. You`d be surprised how often staff don`t do this crucial little step.

This is a different type of constitutional claim, under the “Due Process Clause” of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Both of these amendments implicate a prisoner`s right to “due process” when their constitutional rights are infringed. When a prison doesn`t provide notice of the rejection and the chance to challenge it, this doesn`t provide the prisoner (or the sender) the “due process” they are entitled to under the Constitution.

The Due Process Clause says that the government shall not deprive anyone “of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The strongest challenge here is that a prisoner has a “liberty interest” in his or her mail. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that a prisoner has a “liberty interest” to correspond by mail. Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396 (1974).

Let`s fast-forward 40-plus years after Procunier and look at a case where a prisoner made such a due process claim about his rejected mail. In Vogt v. Wetzel, 9 F.4th 182 (3d Cir. 2021), a federal court of appeals held that a prison`s rejection of incoming mail without providing any sort of rejection notice to the prisoner was a due process violation.

The court recognized that a prison can have a policy that rejects mail. But the challenge wasn`t about the prison`s policy in this case:

A host of compelling interests can justify prison mail regulations. But prisoners like Vogt have a liberty interest in corresponding by mail. So when the prison rejected his letter, notification was required.

Many other courts have said the same thing, and the court acknowledged those decision. I like this case, though, because the opinion is right on-point and without any fluff that clouds the real issue. The court also noted Vogt`s First Amendment claim but because it found the due process error was enough it didn`t address the separate issue of his free speech claim.

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