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An inmate at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, a super-max prison in Lancaster, sued prison officials for the confiscation of his nearly 200 page book manuscript.  The lawsuit alleged that seizure of the manuscript amounted to a violation of the inmate’s 1st and 14th amendment rights as well as a violation of his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

The trial judge determined that prison guards did in fact misapply their regulations when they seized the document.  However, their actions did not amount to a violation of the inmate’s civil or constitutional rights.  Consequently, the trial judge granted summary judgment, dismissing the case, in favor of the Department of Corrections.  The inmate appealed and the Appeals Court upheld the lower court’s decision.

The manuscript was seized by prison officials when it was mailed to the facility by the defendant’s wife.  Prison staff assigned to handle incoming mail deemed the document to be a contraband publication according to 103 CMR. § 481.  That regulation prohibits

“[a]ny book, booklet, pamphlet, magazine, periodical, newsletter, newspaper, or similar document, including stationary and greeting cards, published by any individual, organization, company, or corporation which is distributed or made available through any means or media for a commercial purpose.”

103 Code Mass. Regs. § 481.05 (2017) (definitions).

Both the lower court and the Appeals Court found that the manuscript was not a publication under this definition because it had not been commercially distributed and the title page clearly identified the inmate as the document’s author.

Nevertheless, the misapplication of the regulation did not amount to a violation of federal law.

“[A] prison inmate retains those First Amendment rights that are not inconsistent with his status as a prisoner or with the legitimate penological objectives of the corrections system.”…”[E]ven when an institutional restriction infringes a specific constitutional guarantee, such as the First Amendment, the practice must be evaluated in the light of the central objective of prison administration, safeguarding institutional security.” … “[C]ourts permit prison administrators considerable discretion in the adoption and implementation of prison policies.”…In light of this standard, a policy of confiscating inmate mail does not offend the First or Fourteenth Amendments if it is “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.”

The full opinion is attached below.