Part of prisoner’s lawsuit over restrictive mail policy allowed to proceed

Writing a letter

Prison officials often can impose mail restrictions that are reasonably related to legitimate penological concerns, such as security reasons.

An Arkansas inmate can proceed with part of his lawsuit challenging a mail restriction at the Arkansas Department of Corrections, a federal appeals court panel has ruled.

Rico Benton, an inmate at the Cummins Unit, became upset after learning that prison employees had withheld from him a letter because the letter exceeded the three-page limit. A notice sent to Benton informed him that he would have to pay a fee or the letter would be destroyed.

Benton challenged this administratively and then filed a federal lawsuit. In his lawsuit, he alleges that the mail restriction violates the First Amendment. A federal district court dismissed his claims.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reinstated part of his claim — the part in which he sued the prison officials in their official capacity. The appeals court concluded in its Nov. 13, 2019 decision in Benton v. Kelley that “Benton’s First Amendment claims against defendants in their official capacities sufficiently alleged that his First Amendment right to receive mail was violated by the enforcement of the three-page limit for incoming mail set forth in the prison’s mail policy.”

Case law establishes that inmates have a First Amendment-based right to receive mail. Certainly, inmates have a heightened interest in receiving legal mail. Prison officials often can impose mail restrictions that are reasonably related to legitimate penological concerns, such as security reasons.

However, it appears quite questionable whether a flat three-page limit furthers security. This standard comes from the U.S. Supreme Court’s seminal decision regarding prisoner First Amendment rights, Turner v. Safley (1987). The standard is overly deferential to prison officials.

Instead, it appears that such a restriction is arbitrary and furthers only administrative concerns unrelated to security.

David L. Hudson Jr. is a First Amendment Fellow at the Freedom Forum Institute, and a law professor at Belmont University who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment titled, “Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment” (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including “The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech” (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and “Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded” (ABC-CLIO, 2017).

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