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Prison officials ordered to stop reading inmate's legal mail

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THIRD CIRCUIT--Officials at the State Correctional Institution in Greene, Pa., have been ordered by the U.S. Court of Appeals in…

THIRD CIRCUIT–Officials at the State Correctional Institution in Greene, Pa., have been ordered by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.) to stop opening the legal mail of death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal unless he is present.

The three-judge panel said in its unanimous decision that prison officials may not review Abu-Jamal’s correspondence with his lawyers on the pretext of enforcing its “business or profession rule.” The rule prohibits inmates from operating a business or profession while incarcerated. Correction officials contended Abu-Jamal, who has worked as a journalist and radio reporter while in prison, could be violating this rule.

The court found that “there is no valid, rational connection between the Department’s application of the business or professional rule in this case and a legitimate penological interest.”

Abu-Jamal was convicted in 1981 of killing a Philadelphia police officer and was sentenced to death. While on death row, Abu-Jamal completed a book, “Live From Death Row,” which was published in 1995. He has also written for other publications.

According to Abu-Jamal’s lawyer, Jere Krakoff, officials at the prison began opening the inmate’s outgoing and incoming legal mail after they suspected he was violating the rule by engaging in journalistic endeavors while in prison. Krakoff said officials believed legal correspondence with Abu-Jamal may have contained proof of the rule violation.

“All incoming legal mail must be opened in the presence of the prisoner and that was not being done in some instances,” Krakoff said. “They were opening both outgoing and incoming legal mail, and making photocopies of some correspondence.” Under the rules of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, a “mail watch” can be instituted if a prisoner is believed to be violating the business or profession rule. Under a mail watch, a prisoner’s legal mail can be opened without the prisoner being present. (Abu-Jamal v. Price; Prisoner’s Counsel: Jere Krakoff, Pittsburgh)