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Lawsuits Challenge Prohibition on Prisoner Pen-Pal Services in Indiana, Florida

Lawsuits Challenge Prohibition on Prisoner Pen-Pal Services in Indiana, Florida

by David M. Reutter

To the extent that an Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC) policy “denies prisoners the right to advertise for pen-pals and receive material so they can advertise for pen-pals, the [policy] violates the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” contends a civil rights action filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of two Indiana prisoners.

The lawsuit, which seeks class action status, was brought after state prisoners Dana Woods and Earnest Tope had exhausted their administrative remedies claiming that IDOC Policy and Administrative Procedure No. 02-01-103 violates their right under the First Amendment to correspond with people outside of prison. Both had sought to place ads with PLN advertiser to find freeworld pen-pals.

IDOC officials refused to let Woods and Tope receive any materials from based on Policy 02-01-103’s prohibition on prisoners’ use of the mail to “solicit or otherwise commercially advertise for money, goods, or services,” which includes “advertising for pen pals.” The policy also prohibits receipt of mail from individuals or organizations that market such advertising services.

The suit was filed on December 24, 2008 by ACLU of Indiana attorney Kenneth J. Falk, and was certified as a class action by the court in April 2009. See: Woods v. Commissioner, Indiana Department of Corrections, USDC (S.D. Ind.), Case No. 1:08-cv-1718 LJM-TAB.

On May 5, 2009 a similar lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Florida, challenging an almost identical Florida DOC policy that prohibits prisoners from utilizing pen-pal services. The case was brought by Randall C. Berg, Jr., Executive Director of the Florida Justice Institute, on behalf of Prison Pen Pals, and Joy Perry, who operates Freedom Through Christ Prison Ministries.

The suit questions the constitutionality of FDOC Rule 33-210.101(9) F.A.C., which proscribes prisoners from placing pen-pal ads or receiving “correspondence or materials from persons or groups marketing advertising services, or from subscribing to advertising services.” This rule has resulted in a de facto ban on Mrs. Perry’s prison ministry program, which connects prisoners with churches and religious pen-pals. The FDOC policy is being challenged on First and Fourteenth Amendment grounds and as a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). See: Perry v. Hicks, USDC (MD Fla.), Case No. 3:09-cv-403-J-34 JRK

PLN will report the outcomes of the Indiana and Florida pen-pal lawsuits, which may have an impact on prisoners in other states since restrictions on pen-pal services by prison officials are becoming more widespread.

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Related legal cases

Woods v. Commissioner, Indiana Department of Corrections

Perry v. Hicks