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Virginia's One-Ounce Incoming Mail Policy Upheld

A Virginia federal district court has upheld a Virginia Department
of Corrections policy that limits a prisoner's incoming mail to a one-
ounce envelope. The prisoner filed suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983, alleging
the policy, Division Operating Procedure 851, violated the First
Amendment. The defendant moved for summary judgment.

The Court found the policy does not limit the mail a prisoner can send or
receive. However, it does limit the weight of incoming general purpose
correspondence to no more than one ounce per envelope. The policy does
not apply to legal, special purpose mail, educational correspondence,
packages, or mail from a federal, state, or local agency. Incoming
general-purpose mail that exceeds one ounce is returned to the portal
service unopened.

The Court then analyzed the policy under the four-prong test in Turner v.
Safely, 482 U.S. 78, 107 S. Ct. 2254, 96 L. Ed. 2d 64 (1987). The Court
found the weight limit was implemented to optimize the screening
procedures to minimize the amount of time required to determine if
incoming mail contains illicit materials. Thus, the policy is related to
the legitimate penological interest of preventing contraband from
entering prisons through incoming mail. The Court found prisoners had
alternative means of exercising their rights by having multiple envelopes
sent containing their mail. Finally, abrogating the policy would have a
ripple effect on prison security, and there are no ready alternatives to
the policy.

The Court granted the defendants summary judgment and dismissed the suit.
See: Hall v. Johnson, 224 F.Supp.2d 1058 (E. D. Va. 2002).

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Related legal case

Hall v. johnson

HALL v. JOHNSON, 224 F.Supp.2d 1058 (E.D.Va. 09/30/2002)

[1] United States District Court, Eastern District of Virginia, Norfolk Division

[2] No. 2:01cv856

[3] 224 F. Supp.2d 1058, 2002

[4] September 30, 2002


[6] Attorney's For Petitioner, Barry Hall, Pro Se, Red Onion State Prison, Pound, Va.

[7] Attorney's For Respondant, Pamela Anne Sargent, Office of the Attorney General of Virginia, Richmond, Va.

[8] The opinion of the court was delivered by: Doumar, District Judge.


[10] Plaintiff, a state prisoner, brought this pro se action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, to redress alleged violations of his constitutional rights. Plaintiff claims that his First Amendment rights are violated by the Defendant's departmental policy, specifically Division Operating Procedure ("D.O.P.") 851, regarding incoming personal mail. The complained of regulation limits the weight of incoming, general purpose mail to one ounce. The Plaintiff seeks injunctive relief.

[11] The Defendant has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment arguing that the regulation furthers a legitimate penological interest and that prisoners have no constitutional right to an unrestricted amount of incoming personal mail in a single envelope. For the reasons discussed below, this Court finds the Defendant's arguments persuasive and GRANTS the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.


[13] I. Procedural History

[14] After Plaintiff qualified to proceed in forma pauperis, Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment and a memorandum and affidavits in support thereof. In accordance with Roseboro v. Garrison, 528 F.2d 309 (4th Cir. 1975), Plaintiff was given an opportunity to respond to Defendant's motion with any material that he wished to offer in rebuttal. Plaintiff has responded to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. Therefore, this matter is ready for judicial determination.

[15] II. Facts

[16] The Plaintiff is an inmate confined within the Virginia Department of Corrections ("VDOC"), housed at Red Onion State Prison. Upon initial assignment to a VDOC facility, each inmate is informed of institutional policies and procedures governing inmate mail, incoming publications, and grievances. The inmate is responsible for compliance with these regulations and for instructing family and friends on requirements of the regulations.

[17] Department Operating Procedure 851 governs the procedures relating to inmate mail. There is no limit to the amount of mail that an inmate can send or receive. However, the regulation limits the weight of incoming general purpose correspondence to no more than one ounce per letter. This limitation does not apply to legal, special purpose mail, educational correspondence, packages, mail from a vendor, or mail from a federal, state or local agency. Incoming general purpose mail that exceeds the one ounce limit is returned to the postal service unopened.

[18] Incoming mail is recognized as a source for contraband to enter the institution. Therefore, all incoming mail and packages are opened and searched prior to delivery to inmates. In addition, since correspondence may contain information that is a threat to institutional security, such as escape plans, incoming mail may be read.

[19] III. Standard of Review

[20] Summary judgment under Rule 56 is appropriate only when the court, viewing the record as a whole and in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, determines that there exists no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-24 (1986). Once a party has properly filed evidence supporting the motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party may not rest upon mere allegations in the pleadings, but must instead set forth specific facts illustrating genuine issues for trial. Id. Such facts must be presented in the form of exhibits and sworn affidavits. Failure by a plaintiff to rebut a defendant's motion with such evidence on his behalf will result in summary judgment when appropriate. "[T]he plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment. . . against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Id. at 322.

[21] IV. Analysis

[22] The narrow issue before this Court is whether DOP 851's weight limitation on general purpose incoming mail impermissibly infringes on the Plaintiff's constitutional rights under the First Amendment. In deciding this question, the Court considers the four-factor test set forth by the United States Supreme Court in Turner v. Safley: (1) whether there is a rational relation between the regulation and legitimate governmental interest put forward to justify it, (2) whether there are alternative means of exercising rights that remain open to inmates, (3) whether accommodation of asserted rights will have a significant ripple effect on fellow inmates or prison staff, and (4) whether there is a ready alternative to regulation that fully accommodates prisoners' rights at de minimis cost to valid penological interest. 482 U.S. 78, 89-91 (1987)

[23] In Turner, the Supreme Court addressed the question of whether a prohibition on correspondence between prisoners at different institutions violated their First Amendment rights. The Court recognized that courts are ill-equipped to second guess the decisions of prison administrators, especially regarding regulations affecting institutional security, stating:


Running a prison is an inordinately difficult undertaking that requires expertise, planning, and the commitment of resources, all of which are peculiarly within the province of the legislative and executive branches of government. Prison administration is, moreover, a task that has been committed to the responsibility of those branches, and separation of powers concerns counsel a policy of judicial restraint. Where a state penal system is involved, federal courts have. . . additional reason to accord deference to the appropriate prison authorities.

[25] Id. at 84-85. In evaluating the constitutionality of the ban on correspondence between prisoners, the Court stressed the deference prison officials were afforded and held that regulations would be upheld unless they were not reasonably related to legitimate penological interests. The Court then analyzed the prohibition and determined that the ban on correspondence between prisoners was constitutional. Id. at 100.