An Indiana prison policy barring communications between current inmates and other offenders without permission does not violate the First Amendment, a federal appeals court held.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week declined to revive the lawsuit Phillip Littler filed after prison officials intercepted and destroyed a letter sent to him by a cousin on probation.
In a nonprecedential order, the court panel acknowledged prisoners have a constitutional interest in receiving mail.
But the panel wrote that interest is not unlimited.
“Prison regulations that restrict that interest are nevertheless valid if they relate reasonably to a legitimate penological interest,” the panel wrote in its per curium order, citing cases that included Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987).
Officials at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Carlisle, Ind., south of Terre Haute, the panel continued, confiscated the cousin’s letter to Littler because they feared it might contain coded language.
“Prison security is a sufficiently important government interest to justify limitations on First Amendment rights,” the panel wrote, citing Rowe v. Shake, 196 F.3d 778 (7th Cir. 1999).
The panel affirmed a ruling by U.S. District Judge William T. Lawrence of the Southern District of Indiana that the Indiana Department of Correction’s policy on communications between inmates and other offenders is constitutional.
The policy prohibits communications between current inmates and other offenders — including former Indiana inmates on probation — without permission.
Inmates may challenge the confiscation of mail through prison administrative procedures.
If the confiscation of mail is determined to be authorized by the policy, the inmate has 15 days to tell the mailroom staff where to redirect it or it will be destroyed.
In March 2015, Wabash Valley’s mailroom received a letter addressed to Littler from his cousin. The cousin was on county probation but had not served time in the Indiana prison system.
The mailroom staff confiscated the letter and notified Littler. He challenged the confiscation, but his grievance and appeals were denied.
The letter was destroyed when Littler did not tell the staff where to send it.
In May 2016, Littler sued prison officials in federal court.
During the trial of his suit, Littler testified he had not sought permission to exchange letters with his cousin or anyone else because he thought it would be useless.
Littler was housed in a restricted unit and permission to exchange letters with other offenders is suspended while an inmate is on restricted status.
After Lawrence ruled against him, Littler appealed to the 7th Circuit.
In its order Thursday, the panel wrote prison officials have “substantial discretion” in crafting reasonable regulations that advance penological interests.
“To determine reasonableness, we consider whether there is a valid, rational connection between the prison’s objective and the regulation, whether alternative means of exercising the right are available, whether accommodating the asserted right unduly impacts the prison’s resources and whether obvious, easy alternatives exist to accommodate the prisoner’s rights,” the panel wrote.
Restricting mail that could contain coded messages, the panel wrote, “logically relates” to the goal of ensuring security.
Also, the regulation includes alternative ways that inmates may communicate with others, the panel wrote.
Inmates may seek permission to exchange letters with other offenders, the panel wrote, and can challenge the confiscation of mail. Inmates also may, with certain restrictions, communicate with former inmates over the telephone, the panel wrote.
Panel members were Judges Diane S. Sykes, David F. Hamilton and Michael Y. Scudder Jr. The case is Phillip M. Littler v. Amber Wallace, No. 19-2305.
Littler represents himself in the case.
The prison is represented by Aaron T. Craft and Abigail Rae Recker, both of the Indiana Attorney General’s Office.
Spokeswoman Melissa Gustafson said the attorney general’s office is pleased with the 7th Circuit’s order.
“The court confirmed our position that Littler’s claims were meritless and that DOC officials did not act improperly,” she said in a statement.