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Restriction on inmates' calls does not violate First Amendment

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Restriction on inmates' calls does not violate First Amendment 01/27/97 ALABAMA--In late December, 1996, the U.S. Court of Appeals in…

Restriction on inmates’ calls does not violate First Amendment

01/27/97

ALABAMA–In late December, 1996, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta (11th Cir.) held that limiting the number of people an inmate in a high security prison can call does not violate the First Amendment.

The court reversed a lower court decision and ruled that the ten- person calling list imposed at the William Donaldson Correctional Facility in Birmingham bears a reasonable relation to legitimate penological objectives and therefore does not violate inmates’ rights.

Such calls are sometimes the only method of contact reporters can have with inmates, particularly in states that have moved to restrict or eliminate face-to-face interviews and visits from journalists.

Donaldson houses Alabama’s most dangerous prisoners and maintains the highest prison security levels in the state. Telephone use is only permitted during certain times of the day and each inmate may only place calls to individuals who are on an approved list. This list is limited to ten people who have been screened by prison officials and no one with a criminal record is allowed on the lists. Inmates may change their lists every six months.

In late June 1993, Freddie Glen Pope, a Donaldson inmate, sued the prison over the policy. Following a bench trial, the federal District Court in Montgomery held that limiting the number of people Pope could call violated his First Amendment rights. The court concluded that since Pope’s family lived in Kansas and he was not be able to take full advantage of his visitation rights, he should be allowed to expand his list to fifteen people. Prison officials appealed the decision.

The appellate court declared that the lower court had not followed the U.S. Supreme Court’s test for review of prisoners’ constitutional claims, which requires only a valid connection between a contested restriction and the legitimate governmental interest put forward to justify it. The list system was established in order to reduce criminal activity and the harassment of judges and jurors, the court found, and meets the test’s requirement.

The Court of Appeals also held that there were in fact alternative means for Pope to exercise his First Amendment right to communicate with family and friends, because he could receive visitors and correspond with virtually anyone he wished. In addition, since conducting the background investigations of individuals on the prisoners’ lists requires a considerable expenditure of time by prison staff, the accommodation of the asserted constitutional right would have a significant impact on the allocation of prison resources.

The court asserted that the telephone regulation was not an exaggerated response to prison concerns because there were no obvious alternatives to the policy. (Pope v. Hightower)