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Illinois Prisoner Wins Federal Civil Rights Suit over Mail Censorship

by Derek Gilna

Kevin A. Williams, a state prisoner at the Pontiac Correctional Center in Illinois, was serving a 65-year sentence for murder. While at Pontiac he ordered a copy of his victim’s death certificate, but prison staff blocked his receipt of that document and an accompanying unsigned note from the court clerk that said Williams would have a “place in hell.”

Williams filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal district court alleging violation of his First Amendment rights, which was eventually dismissed. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, however, and overturned the dismissal.

As the appellate court noted in its September 20, 2016 ruling, ‘“prisoners have protected First Amendment interests in both sending and receiving mail,’ Rowe v. Shake, 196 F.3d 778, 782 (7th Cir. 1999), [but] a prison can confiscate an inmate’s mail if confiscation ‘is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.’”

Nonetheless, the Court of Appeals held prison officials must produce “some evidence to show that the restriction is justified.” In the current case, Williams was told he could not have the death certificate “because it posed a threat to the safety and security of the institution and would negatively impact [his] rehabilitation.” Apparently, prison staff thought he wanted the certificate as a “trophy” to memorialize his crime.

The Court wrote there was “a legitimate safety concern about ‘boasting inmates’ carrying around trophies of their victims,” but Williams argued that he ordered the death certificate as an exhibit for his post-conviction filings, and the defendants “presented no contrary evidence to support their assumption that Williams wanted a trophy.”

Although the Seventh Circuit dismissed several defendant prison officials who were not directly involved in the censorship of Williams’ mail, the appellate court held the “right of a prison inmate to read the mail he receives, provided that his reading it would not infringe the prison’s legitimate interests, is ... clearly established.”

Consequently, the district court’s judgment regarding the prison employees “involved in the confiscation of the death certificate” was reversed and remanded for further proceedings, and the case remains pending. See: Williams v. Hansen, 837 F.3d 809 (7th Cir. 2016). 

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Related legal case

Williams v. Hansen