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Fifth Circuit Upholds Correspondence Restrictions in Houston Jail

On August 9, 2000, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court's dismissal of a prisoner's challenge to correspondence restrictions at the Harris County Jail in Houston, Texas.

Matthew James Leachman, a prisoner at the Harris County Jail, filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal district court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 challenging several aspects of correspondence restrictions at the jail. These included: a rule restricting prisoners to possessing no more than three publications, a requirement that all books be softbound and come from the publisher with proof of prior payment to the publisher and pre-approval from the jail's librarian based solely on the title of the book and its publisher, a ban on greeting cards, a ban on gift or free publications, and a policy of confiscating the envelopes letters arrive in. The defendants claimed that hardbound books could be used to conceal and transport contraband, allowing more than three publications per prisoner would create a fire hazard, gift and free publications would allow trafficking and trading in publications, restricting vendors to publishers reduced the probability of publications being used to smuggle contraband, the pre-approval rule was to prevent the introduction of disruptive publications or pornography, and greeting cards were too thick to effectively check for contraband and could be used as blotter paper for liquid drugs, a problem also present with envelopes. They asserted that prisoners could request the return and main address sections of the envelopes. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants. Leachman appealed.

The Fifth Circuit held that the correspondence rules were constitutional as being reasonably related to the security and order of the jail and the prisoners' rehabilitation. It noted that the only book Leachman claimed was denied had arrived after the suit was filed and he had not grieved the denial. Judge Dennis filed a detailed dissent in which he noted that the Supreme Court cases relied upon by the panel's majority did not support such strict correspondence restrictions such as the three-publication limit, the pre-approval based solely on title and publisher and the ban on gift and free publications, especially in light of exceptions to them made for religious materials and correspondence courses. See: Leachman v. Thomas, 229 F.3d 1148 (5th Cir. 2000) (unpublished).

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Related legal case

Leachman v. Thomas

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