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Plew v. Hildebrandt

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

August 14, 2014

RYAN L. PLEW, # S-03238, Plaintiff,


MICHAEL J. REAGAN, District Judge.

Plaintiff, currently incarcerated at Robinson Correctional Center ("Robinson"), has brought this pro se civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He claims that his legal and privileged mail has been opened by prison officials, in violation of his constitutional rights.

More specifically, Plaintiff asserts that on four occasions, his "privileged" mail has been opened and treated as regular mail, contrary to prison administrative regulations (Doc. 1, p. 6, Doc. 1-1, pp. 2-3). The first incident mentioned in the complaint occurred on March 26, 2014, but Plaintiff does not describe the nature of the opened letter, nor does he state who sent it to him (Doc. 1, p. 6). The next incident was on May 13 or 15, 2014, [1] when he received an improperly opened letter from the Dentons Law Firm, which had been marked as "Legal Correspondence" (Doc. 1-1, p. 4). Then, on May 14 or 16, he received a letter from the Clerk of this Court (Doc. 1-1, p. 5) which had also been opened. He filed a grievance to request that his "legal or federal" mail not be opened by mail room staff unless he was present (Doc. 1-1, pp. 2-3). That grievance was upheld, and the response stated that the mailroom was to follow the procedure in DR 525.110[2] in regards to "legal mail" (Doc. 1-1, p. 1).

However, the same problem recurred on June 24, 2014, when a letter to Plaintiff from the John Howard Association arrived after having been opened outside his presence.

Plaintiff now seeks money damages, a declaratory judgment, and an injunction to stop the improper opening of his mail.

Merits Review Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A

Under § 1915A, the Court is required to conduct a prompt threshold review of the complaint, and to dismiss any claims that are frivolous, malicious, fail to state a claim on which relief may be granted, or seek monetary relief from an immune defendant.

After fully considering the allegations in Plaintiff's complaint, the Court concludes that this action is subject to summary dismissal.

Although Plaintiff describes four incidents when he believes prison officials failed to comply with the administrative regulations regarding "privileged mail, " not all of his allegations raise constitutional concerns. Legal correspondence directed to prisoners - that is, mail from an attorney or law firm - is entitled to heightened protection. However, mail from a court or from an organization such as the John Howard Association is not "legal mail" - under either a constitutional analysis or as defined within the regulations governing the Illinois Department of Corrections. Under the state administrative regulations cited by Plaintiff, some of the letters he describes may have been "privileged." See ILL. ADMIN. CODE tit. 20, § 525.110 (2014). However, only one of the letters (the correspondence from the Dentons Law Firm) raises a potential constitutional claim as true "legal mail."

Inmates have a First Amendment right both to send and receive mail, Rowe v. Shake, 196 F.3d 778, 782 (7th Cir. 1999), but that right does not preclude prison officials from examining mail to ensure that it does not contain contraband, Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 576, 94 S.Ct. 2963, 41 L.Ed.2d 935 (1974); Rowe, 196 F.3d at 782. An inmate's legal mail, however, is entitled to greater protections because of the potential for interference with his right of access to the courts. Rowe, 196 F.3d at 782. Thus, when a prison receives a letter for an inmate that is marked with an attorney's name and a warning that the letter is legal mail, officials potentially violate the inmate's rights if they open the letter outside of the inmate's presence. See Wolff, 418 U.S. at 577, 94 S.Ct. 2963; Castillo v. Cook County Mail Room Dep't, 990 F.2d 304, 305-06 (7th Cir.1993).

Kaufman v. McCaughtry, 419 F.3d 678, 685 (7th Cir. 2005).

Thus, if a letter does not come from an attorney and is not marked with the warning that it is legal mail, it may be opened for inspection without compromising the inmate's constitutional rights. The John Howard Association letter was not marked as legal correspondence, and the complaint does not suggest that the envelope contained correspondence from an attorney. Thus, Plaintiff did not suffer any harm to his constitutional rights when that letter was opened.

Similarly, correspondence from the Clerk of this Court (or any other court) is not "legal mail" and may be opened outside the inmate's presence.

[W]ith minute and irrelevant exceptions all correspondence from a court to a litigant is a public document, which prison personnel could if they want inspect in the court's files. It is therefore not apparent to us why it should be regarded as privileged and how [the plaintiff] could be hurt ...

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