Plaintiff, an inmate at the Standish Correctional Facility in Michigan brought a Section 1983 suit pro se in the Eastern District of Michigan against the Michigan Department of Corrections challenging its policy of treating mail from the State Attorney General's Office as regular mail rather than confidential legal correspondence. Represented by private counsel, he requested damages, an injunction, and a declaratory judgment.
On September 17, 1991, in accordance with a Michigan Department of Corrections policy directive, plaintiff requested in writing that prison staff open his legal mail only in his presence. On October 9, 1991, a mail room staff opened mail addressed to Plaintiff that was clearly marked as having come from the State Attorney General's office. That letter did not actually contain any confidential correspondence. Defendants opened the letter pursuant to a February 7, 1991 Department of Corrections memorandum stating that mail to inmates from the Attorney General's Office need not be treated as legal mail, and thus need not be treated as confidential. The memorandum explained that there is no requirement of confidentiality in correspondence with that office, or any prosecutor, because they represent the state. Plaintiff's suit complained that this policy violated his constitutional rights. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. The district court (Judge Avern Cohn) for the Eastern District of Michigan granted partial summary judgment to defendants on the issue of availability of damages. The court granted partial summary judgment awarding declaratory relief to the plaintiff ruling that the opening of such mail outside of Plaintiff's presence was unconstitutional. Defendants appealed that decision.
On appeal, the defendants raised two arguments, both of which the Sixth Circuit (Judge Nathan R. Jones) found unpersuasive. Muhammad v. Pitcher, 35 F.3d 1081 (6th Cir. 1994). First, they contended that plaintiff had no cognizeable interest in maintaining confidentiality regarding mail from the State Attorney General's Office as that office represents the prison and is adverse to the inmates. The Sixth Circuit rejected this argument, and noted, as had plaintiff and the lower court, that the Attorney General's Office frequently provides legal assistance to prisoners. The court also found defendants' argument that mail from the inmate to the Attorney General's Office may be confidential, but mail from the Attorney General to the inmate was not meritless as a matter of common sense, authority from other circuits, and in comparison to the Federal Bureau of Prisons guidelines.
Defendant's second contention was that because the piece of mail that was opened was not confidential, plaintiff suffered no actual prejudice. The Sixth Circuit noted that such an argument overlooks the chilling effect that policy would have on inmates' First Amendment Rights, and said that the actual content of the letter opened is not relevant in the determination of the constitutionality of the practice. The court held that the chilling effect amounted to present injury by creating a roadblock to the redress of legal problems and that the policy was prejudicial because, it would to confidential and non-confidential correspondence alike.
The Sixth Circuit then applied the four-factor Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987), test to determine if the regulation was reasonably related to legitimate penological interests. Based on that analysis, the court concluded that the regulation regarding mail from the Attorney General's Office was not related to any legitimate penological concern, and therefore was unconstitutional, thus affirming the district court.
Judge Siler dissented, stating that the plaintiff had not shown a constitutional violations and moreover, that the issue was not ripe, as the prison officials did not actually read any confidential correspondence from the Attorney General to the Plaintiff. He argued that the regulation was related to the reasonable penological interest of preventing contraband from entering the prison, and therefore was reasonable.
The docket for this case obtained from PACER indicates that on October 6, 1994, plaintiff amended his application for attorneys fees and costs. After briefing, Judge Avern Cohn granted plaintiff's application and entered a judgment of $9,956.70 against defendants. Sherrie Waldrup - 09/07/2005