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Prisoner’s Right to Mail Announcement of Peaceful Demon-stration Trumps Purported Prison Security Claims

On October 21, 2008, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California upheld a state prisoner’s First Amendment right to send mail after his letters to several media agencies were blocked by prison authorities. The letters asked the media to announce a peaceful demonstration by prisoners against California’s Three Strikes law and double-celling at Corcoran State Prison.

The then-California Dept. of Corrections (CDC) argued that such an announcement would encourage unrest at Cor-coran and other facilities, and that CDC staff had a legitimate security interest in censoring the letters. Prison officials ar-gued the letters promoted an unlawful association, which trumped any right to send mail. The district court disagreed, find-ing the unlawful association claim was speculative since the demonstration was to be peaceful, and holding the emphasis on the association issue was misplaced. Thus, censoring the prisoner’s mail violated his First Amendment rights.

In 2003, Corcoran prisoner Bryan E. Ransom, representing a grassroots organization called the Black Nationalist Prison/Community, sent a press-release letter to KMPH-TV in Fresno (near Corcoran) and to Berkeley radio station KPFA, announcing his position as the Founding President/Minister of the “National Plantation Psychosis Awareness Committee” (NPPAC). He also announced a planned protest, which was described as “a statewide 3-Strike Back Lash demonstration start[ing] February 26, 2003, call[ing] for all CDC inmates to resist CDC’s illegal practice of the forced dou-ble celling of unwilling inmates into cells designed for one man occupancy. Thus creating a lethal and barbaric gladiator environment for inmates throughout the State of California….”

Not surprisingly, CDC staff confiscated Ransom’s letters to the media (for over a year), on the grounds that they vio-lated prison rules prohibiting inciting unrest. Ransom, who was written up for a rules violation, later brought suit in federal court asserting his First Amendment right to mail the letters had been violated. The district court held that CDC’s argu-ment, which attacked Ransom’s claim under freedom-of-association restrictions, missed the point. The feared “associa-tion” was on its face purportedly peaceful, and thus did not threaten prison security.

Further, the court noted that the “problem with Defendants’ argument is that the claim arises not out of the right of asso-ciation but out of the right to send mail. Plaintiff is not premising his claim on an unconstitutional disallowance of an inmate demonstration or from an unconstitutional interference with his right to redress his grievance over double celling.”

Censoring Ransom’s mail violated his First Amendment right to communicate with others, including media agencies. Without a demonstrated connection between the mailings themselves and prison security concerns, CDC was not allowed to censor Ransom’s letters. In granting partial summary judgment to Ransom, the district court also held that CDC was not entitled to qualified immunity on the mail censorship issue. See: Ransom v. Johnson, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89293 (E.D. Cal., Oct. 21, 2008).

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Related legal case

Ransom v. Johnson