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James Munson v. Donaldgaetz

March 9, 2012

JAMES MUNSON, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
DONALDGAETZ, WARDEN, ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. No. 3:10-cv-00881-GPM-G. Patrick Murphy, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Tinder, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED DECEMBER 8, 2011

Before MANION, ROVNER, and TINDER, Circuit Judges.

James Munson, an Illinois Department of Corrections prisoner serving a life sentence, alleged in a pro se 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaint that prison officials violated his constitutional rights by barring him from personally possessing two of the six books he had shipped to the prison. The district court found that Munson failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. We affirm.

I. Background

We accept as true Munson's allegations given that the district court dismissed his complaint for failure to state a claim. See Smith v. Peters, 631 F.3d 418, 419 (7th Cir. 2011). Munson suffers from a chronic medical condition as well as a variety of medical ailments that require him to take several prescription drugs on a daily basis. Because he is incarcerated, Munson relies on prison personnel for the accuracy of his medications and dosages. Munson once became ill because someone accidentally gave him another inmate's medication for twelve days. Given the life-threatening nature such incidents pose, Munson has taken to educating himself about his medications. Munson wants to know about side effects, whether various mixtures of the medications for his chronic condition and his other ailments could cause illness or death, and if he should avoid certain foods. His lack of knowledge causes stress and mental anguish and makes him leery of taking other medications even though prescribed by a physician.

Munson turned to the prison library, which allows inmates to check out books to take back to their cells and photocopy books' pages to keep in their permanent collections. But Munson found that long waiting lists and frequent prison lockdowns impaired his access to the information he wanted. So Munson ordered six books from a prison-approved bookstore. Some of the books included Carpe Diem: Put A Little Latin in Your Life, Diversity and Direction in Psychoanalytic Technique, and Neurodevelopmental Mechanisms in Psychopathology.

Munson's complaint indicates that a prison official sent the Physicians' Desk Reference (PDR) and the Complete Guide to Prescription & Nonprescription Drugs 2009 (Complete Guide) to the prison's publication reviewers for further screening. We know from "Publication Review Determination and Course of Action" forms attached to his complaint that publication review officer Lisa Shemonic decided Munson could not have the Complete Guide and the PDR. To justify the decision, Shemonic provided three reasons for both books. Shemonic simply checked the available boxes for the first two reasons: the books were "listed on the Disapproved Publications List," and the books contained material deemed "otherwise detrimental to security, good order, rehabilitation, or discipline, or it might facilitate criminal activity or be detrimental to mental health." The third reason was more specific. Shemonic checked the box indicating that the books contained "other" material and specified "DRUGS" on the blank line. In the forms' comment section, Shemonic typed "ON THE DISAPPROVED LIST." Munson alleges in his complaint that "many other" inmates possessed "these kinds of medical" books and that these particular books may be available in the prison's library. Munson alleges that Shemonic told him that even though the same books may be in the prison library, prison officials did not want inmates "to have the books in [their] cells or have personal ownership of the books." Munson filed a grievance but prison officials affirmed the decision. Munson's complaint suggests that prison officials mailed the books somewhere and his counsel stated at oral argument that it was his under-standing that the books went to Munson's family.

Munson filed a pro se 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaint alleging that the restriction violated his First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The district court screened Munson's complaint, 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a), and dismissed it with prejudice for failing to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, id. § 1915A(b)(1). The court noted that it appeared from Munson's complaint that the prison's policy allowed prisoners to have limited access to books about prescription drugs but not personal ownership. The court explained that it: can imagine many illicit uses to which books like the PDR and the Complete Guide could be put if . . . prisoners were allowed unfettered access to such materials, including, inter alia, drug trafficking, drug abuse, and plotting suicide attempts, all of which are, of course, activities highly detrimental to prison security and discipline.

Munson v. Gaetz, et al., No. 10-881-GPM, 2011 WL 692015, at *3 (S.D. Ill. Feb. 17, 2011). The court found the prison's decision to restrict Munson's access to the PDR and the Complete Guide reasonable. The court dismissed the Eight Amendment claim because Munson only alleged "quibbles" with the prison doctors' prescriptions and the Fourteenth Amendment claim because Munson failed to allege a constitutionally protected property interest. Id. The dismissal counted as a strike against Munson. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g).

II. Analysis

We review the dismissal of Munson's complaint de novo. Ortiz v. Downey, 561 F.3d 664, 669 (7th Cir. 2009). We accept well-pleaded facts as true but not legal conclusions or conclusionary allegations that merely recite a claim's elements. McCauley v. City of Chicago, No. 09-3561, 2011 WL 4975644, at *4 (7th Cir. Oct. 20, 2011) (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1951 (2009)). We must determine whether the "factual allegations 'plausibly suggest an entitlement to relief,' " id. (quoting Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1951), to a degree that rises "above the speculative level," id. (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). The "plausibility determination is 'a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.' " Id. (quoting Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1950). Although the 1995 Prison Litigation Reform Act "mandates early judicial screening of prisoner complaints," Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 202 (2007), we still consider pro se complaints liberally and hold them to a less stringent standard than pleadings drafted by lawyers, see Maddox v. Love, 655 F.3d 709, 718 (7th Cir. 2011) (citing Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007)).

Munson argues that the district court erred in dismissing his complaint before taking evidence supporting the penological interest justifying the prison's decision to restrict his access to the books. Munson maintains that the district court improperly relied on its own speculation and that his complaint's factual allegations sufficiently stated a claim that the government wrongly deprived him of his First Amendment rights.

A prison's refusal to allow an inmate access to a book "presents a substantial First Amendment issue. Freedom of speech is not merely freedom to speak; it is also freedom to read." King v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 415 F.3d 634, 638 (7th Cir. 2005) (citing cases). Forbidding someone the right to read shuts "him out of the marketplace of ideas and opinions," which is what the Free Speech Clause protects. Id. Yet prisons may have "valid penological reasons for limiting prison inmates' access to certain" books, such as those discussing famous prison escapes or perhaps even books about making oneself stronger. Id. But the prison must still justify its interest in restricting access to the particular book. Given that the prison restricted Munson's First Amendment rights by denying him the books, the restriction "is valid only if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests." Lindell v. Frank, 377 F.3d 655, 657 (7th Cir. 2004). Under Turner v. Safley, we consider four factors to judge the restriction's constitutionality: (1) the validity and rationality of the connection between a legitimate and neutral government objective and the restriction; (2) whether ...


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