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Federal Judge Says Alaska DOC Policy Rejecting Prisoner Mail Without Notice Violates Due Process

by Mark Wilson

Can a prisoner’s mail be rejected without any notice whatsoever? Not without violating his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights. That was the decision of a federal court in Alaska on December 14, 2021.

At issue was a discrepancy in the mail policy of the state Department of Corrections (DOC). On the one hand, the policy said that “non-white” envelopes and those with adhesives must be returned to sender, unopened. However, the DOC Prisoner Mail Action Form gives a prisoner three days after mail rejection to elect one of several disposal methods, none of which includes returning the item unopened.

The problem came to light in the mailroom at Wildwood Correctional Complex (WCC). Employee Dana Ivy rejected three letters addressed to prisoner Carl K. Thompson: One was sent back because it was “non-white” and two others for having “address labels affixed” with adhesive. Ivy did not give Thompson notice. He did not get three days to determine how to dispose of the items.

Thompson brought suit pro se in federal court for the District of Alaska against Ivy and DOC Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom. Arguing that the mail rejection policy violated his First Amendment and due process rights, he sought $6 in damages and an order to overturn the ban on “non-white” envelopes and those with “adhesive.”

The district court dismissed his First Amendment claim and Dahlstrom as a defendant. It also offered to negotiate settlement of the remaining due process claim. Ivy refused and moved to dismiss, arguing “it is questionable whether an inmate has a right to receive notice when mail is returned, unopened, for facial deficiencies.” But the Court said simply:

“Defendant is wrong.”

Quoting Frost v. Symington, 197 F.3d 348 (9th Cir. 1999), the Court called it “well-established” that prisoners have “‘a Fourteenth Amendment due process liberty interest in receiving notice that [their] incoming mail is being withheld.’” And this interest “is meaningless if that notice is not adequate and fairly rendered,” the Court explained.

If the DOC “policy … suggest[s] that unopened mail can be returned immediately, before informing the inmate and without any supervisory review,” it is invalid, the Court said. Quoting Sorrels v. McKee, 290 F.3d 965 (9th Cir. 2002), it said that “withhold[ing] delivery of [inmate mail] must be accompanied by minimum procedural safeguards.”

As for Thompson’s request for damages, the Court rejected Ivy’s argument that he was not the “prevailing party.” After all, his “suit brought to light a fundamental problem with WCC’s handling of prisoner mail, and with … DOC policy,” the Court noted.

Nevertheless, Ivy “presumably possesses very little authority to make institutional changes,” the Court said, and the issues resolved were “clearly beyond” her authority. So she was not ordered to pay Thompson’s $6 in requested damages or reimburse $33.72 in photocopy and postage costs that DOC charged him to bring the suit.

However, “[t]he irony of … charging Plaintiff for copies and postage to pursue his suit is not lost on this Court,” declared Judge Ralph R. Beistline. He therefore ordered the clerk to refund Thompson’s $402 filing fee “in the interests of justice.” See: Thompson v. Ivy, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 239185 (D. Alaska).

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Related legal case

Thompson v. Ivy