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Alaska Supreme Court Rules Against Muslim Prisoner on Correspondence Ban

by Ed Lyon

Unlike most state prison systems, Alaska’s Department of Corrections (DOC) usually allows prisoners to correspond by mail with prisoners in other units. In February 2014, prison officials adopted a policy that prohibited prisoners assigned to three units from sending letters to each other. The reason for the policy change was concerns over prisoners returning from being housed in other states who were believed to have become involved with gangs and drugs. DOC officials did not want to allow them to correspond with other prisoners regarding those issues. There were exceptions for communication with family members and legal correspondence.

Raymond Leahy, a Muslim prisoner who self-identifies as the Imam of the “Ummah of Incarcerated Alaskan Muslims,” was assigned to the Goose Creek Correctional Center, which is one of the three units where prisoner-to-prisoner correspondence was banned. The Islamic holy month of Ramadan occurred following the policy change, yet Leahy sent a letter to another Muslim prisoner at one of the other affected units. It was returned marked “undeliverable.”

In June 2016, Leahy filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 lawsuit in superior court after exhausting his state remedies. His basis for the suit was the prophet Muhammad’s requirement for him to communicate with Muslims outside his own community, thus he argued the DOC’s ban violated his rights under the Alaska Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). He sought monetary damages and injunctive relief.

While the case was pending, the DOC rescinded the correspondence ban. Prison officials had gained the proficiency to better monitor prisoner-to-prisoner correspondence, and any further mail limitations would only be imposed “on a case-by-case basis” due to “safety or security concerns.” Leahy moved for summary judgment while the defendants also sought summary judgment, claiming the end of the correspondence ban had mooted Leahy’s claims, asserting qualified immunity and arguing the ban had not violated his rights.

The superior court granted summary judgment to two prison superintendents, finding they were entitled to qualified immunity because they did not initiate the policy and Leahy’s claims became moot when the ban was lifted.

Alaska’s Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision on March 8, 2019, though for a different reason. Since there was “no clearly established existing law” concerning prisoner-to-prisoner religious correspondence prior to the DOC’s 2014 correspondence ban, that was the correct legal basis to grant qualified immunity to the prison superintendents.

Additionally, the Court noted that Leahy had failed to make a prevailing party argument before the superior court, which meant he “cannot raise one for the first time on appeal.” See: Leahy v. Conant, 436 P.3d 1039 (Alaska 2019). 

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Related legal case

Leahy v. Conant