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Fifth Circuit Issues Landmark Ruling on Texas Prison System Correspondence Rules

Texas state prisoner Guadalupe Guajardo filed a federal civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 challenging the restrictions on prisoners correspondence in Texas prisons.

After partial settlement, the court ruled that, because only declaratory judgment was sought, it could proceed without a three-judge panel and that the defendants had filed their request for jury trial too late. It then struck down Texas prison system (TDC) correspondence rules limiting prisoners to only writing a maximum of forty letters to ten persons on a TDC-approved list. The court allowed an unlimited amount of letters to any person but permitted prison officials to read both inbound and outbound correspondence unless it was to or from courts, attorneys, pubic officials or media (for which the inbound correspondence could be examined for physical contraband, but only in the presence of the prisoner it was addressed to). It also rejected "special handling" rules permitting a delivery delay of "disturbing" correspondence until a chaplain or psychologist could be notified. The court also rejected the blanket censorship of material advocating "prisoners' rights" and sexually-oriented publications. Additionally, the court rejected TDC censoring inbound letters that concern plans for violations of prison rules or contain graphic depictions of criminal sexual behavior.

The court granted plaintiff’s attorneys' fees which TDC objected to as excessive and unwarranted because the bulk of the Correspondence Rules changes were via settlement, not court rulings.

Appeal and cross-appeal were taken. The Fifth Circuit upheld all of the above rulings except it held that TDC could censor letters concerning violations of prison rules or graphic depictions of criminal deviant sexual behavior (e.g. homosexuality). The court of appeals also upheld a publishers-only rule for publications, a prohibition on prisoners receiving packages from private persons and a requirement that TDC provide indigent prisoners with postage and stationary. It also upheld the award of attorney fees and held that a three-judge panel was unnecessary. See: Guajardo v. Estelle, 580 F.2d 748 (5th Cir. 1978)

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Related legal case

Guajardo v. Estelle