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No Summary Judgment on Mail Delay Claim

A federal court in California has denied prison officials summary judgment on injunctive relief claims as to delayed delivery of prisoner mail. However, the court denied damages as to that claim and granted prison officials summary judgment on several other claims.

California prisoners Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell were validated as members of the Aryan Brotherhood (AB) in 1988 and 1984, respectively. Both have been confined in the Secured Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) since 1989 (Troxell) and 1990 (Ashker).

Ashker and Troxell brought federal suit challenging delayed personal mail delivery; denial of magazines depicting nudity and tattooing; gang validation procedures; denial of programs; and parole denial procedures. On March 25, 2009, the district court granted summary judgment to the prison official defendants on all claims except the plaintiffs’ injunctive relief claim for delayed personal mail delivery.

“Prison officials have a responsibility to forward mail to inmates promptly. ... Allegations that mail delivery was delayed for an inordinate amount of time are sufficient to state a claim for violation of the First Amendment,” the court noted. The plaintiffs offered sufficient evidence to allow their injunctive relief claim to proceed to trial, but the court granted the defendants qualified immunity from damages.

Turning to the plaintiffs’ challenges to rules prohibiting magazines depicting nudity and tattooing, the district court applied the “reasonable relationship test” of Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987) to reject the facial and as-applied challenges.

The court denied Troxell’s gang validation claim as “barred by the statute of limitations because it does not meet the requirements of a continuing violation as set forth in Knox v. Davis, 260 F.3d 1009 (9th Cir. 2001).” The court also denied Ashker’s gang validation claim, finding that the decision was supported by “some evidence” based upon the court’s in camera review of eight confidential memos in his file.

The court also rejected Ashker’s denial of programming claim “because there is no liberty interest in rehabilitative programs.” Additionally, “any connection between SHU conditions and Mr. Ashker’s desire to be granted parole is too attenuated to support a federal due process claim.”

Similarly, the district court denied Ashker’s parole denial claim, finding that the Board’s stated reasons for denying him parole “constitute more than ‘some evidence’ that is required for the Board to find an inmate a danger to the public if released.” Finally, the court rejected Ashker’s claim “that the Board has a no parole policy for SHU inmates because it requires them to participate in work, self-help and education programs which are not available to them.”

The court found that “Mr. Ashker’s own actions have warranted his placement in the SHU and it is his own decision not to undertake the available methods for release from the SHU.” See: Ashker v. Schwarzenegger, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 4:05-cv-03286; 2009 WL 801557.

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Related legal case

Ashker v. Schwarzenegger