The policy of the Arizona Department of Corrections is to check to make sure that “contraband” is not being sent out into the world by prison inmates. The problem is that the policy and practice of the DOC included a page-by-page review of the content of outgoing inmate mail sent to the inmates’ attorneys. This, an inmate argued, violates his rights under the First Amendment (free speech) and Sixth Amendment (right to legal counsel) to the United States Constitution.
Inmate Scott Nordstrom, who is on death row, sent a letter to his attorney. Before the letter left the prison, it was read by a guard, even though the letter was marked as “legal mail.” Nordstrom sued back in 2011, claiming that the policy of DOC violated his constitutional rights. United States District Judge David Campbell threw the case out, ruling that the lawsuit “failed to state a claim.” What it means is that even if everything the plaintiff – in the case Nordstrom – says is true, there is still no basis for legal relief.
Nordstrom appealed, and in 2014 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Judge Campbell’s ruling. The case was remanded to the District Court.
When the case came back to Judge Campbell, he found that there was no violation of Nordstrom’s constitutional rights. The case was again appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which issued its opinion last month and reversed Judge Campbell for the second time. The appeals court held that the policy and practice of the DOC violated Nordstrom’s rights under the First and Sixth Amendments.
The analysis in this case is not complicated. The ruling says simply that although the Arizona DOC has may properly have its guards review outgoing prisoner mail to check for contraband, its definition of “contraband” is so broad that it permits the wholesale content review of outgoing letters. In other words, while an appropriate inspection might include, for example, an examination to make sure that the envelope does not contain illegal items, the practice goes far beyond that. Finally, the court noted that the DOC failed to produce evidence identifying a threat that might require a closer examination of legal mail.
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