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Circuit Court upholds ban on pen-pal solicitation by inmates

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The First Amendment rights of Indiana inmates aren’t being violated by a ban instituted by the Department of Correction on advertising for pen-pals and receiving materials from resources that allow people to advertise for pen-pals, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals held Tuesday.

Inmates Dana Woods and Ernest Tope filed the class-action suit against the DOC after an internal investigation into financial fraud and pen-pals led the DOC to limit the source of trust account funds to inmates’ family members and other authorized individuals. The DOC also prohibited inmates from soliciting or commercially advertising for money and goods or services, which includes a ban on advertising for pen-pals.

The inmates challenged the constitutionality of the ban on advertising for pen-pals, in which Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson in the U.S. District Court’s Southern District of Indiana granted summary judgment to the DOC.

Using the four factors outlined in Turner v. Safely, 482 U.S. 78, 89 (1987), which discussed when regulations impinging on inmates’ constitutional rights are valid, the 7th Circuit upheld the ban. Under Turner, there must be a “valid, rational connection” between the regulation and the objective set forth to justify it; the inmates need to have an alternative means of exercising the restricted right; the impact of accommodating the asserted right on prison staff, other inmates, and prison resources generally must be considered; and the regulation must not be an “exaggerated response” that ignores an alternative which would accommodate the inmates’ First Amendment rights at a modest cost to legitimate penological interests.

In this case, Dana Woods, et al. v. Commissioner of the Indiana Department of Corrections, No. 10-3339, the inmates were unable to disprove the validity of the regulation on any of the four factors.

“We close by noting that constitutional rights are not eradicated by one’s incarceration; the liberties enjoyed by the citizenry at large remain available to incarcerated individuals except to the extent that the exercise of such liberties is at odds with the objectives and administration of an effective prison system. Using pen-pal websites to engage in fraud is antithetical to the rehabilitative goals of confinement,” wrote Judge William Bauer. “Here, the IDOC reasonably perceived that continuing to allow inmates to use the sites would passively enable fraud. The regulation enacted to prevent it squarely addressed the threat and is therefore constitutional.”

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