The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit sided with an inmate who had ordered the death certificate of his victim and was not allowed to keep it when his mail was opened by prison officials. The case involves Kevin Williams. Kevin Williams was convicted of the murder of Traci Todd and sentenced to 65 years in prison. While he was incarcerated at the Pontiac Correction Center, a maximum security prison in Illinois, Williams ordered the death certificate of his victim from the County Clerk’s Office. The death certificate was received in the mail at Pontiac. His mail was opened by prison officials and inside the envelope, they found the victim’s death certificate along with an unsigned note which stated that “there is a place in hell waiting for you as you must know you will reap what you have sowed.” The prison officials confiscated the mail claiming that they were doing so to insure the safety and security of the facility and not to negatively impact his rehabilitation. Williams filed a civil suit in Federal Court against the prison warden, the Director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, and the prison employees responsible for confiscating his mail for a Deprivation of his First Amendment Rights. Initially the Federal Court dismissed Williams’s lawsuit against some of the defendants because they had not been involved in the confiscation of his mail. The court then dismissed the lawsuit against the remaining defendants because the court found that confiscating the mail would decrease the chances that inmates would retaliate against him for boasting about his crime, and that it would protect family members from the release of private information about surviving family members. The Court of Appeals overturned the decision of the District Court and struck the confiscation of his mail.
The Court started by stating that prisoners have a First Amendment right to send and receive mail. However, prison officials can confiscate a prisoner’s mail if they are able to show that doing so is reasonably related to a management of prison interest. A mere statement by prison officials that they are protecting this interest is not enough. They have to come forth with some evidence that shows that this restriction is justified. In this case, the note did not threaten any harm in prison. It warned of harm “in hell.” There was no allegation by prison officials that the letter threatened any harm to Williams inside the prison. Prison officials argued that the death certificate could be used as a “trophy” by Williams to boast in prison and that would cause security problems and negatively impact his rehabilitation. The Court found that this is a legitimate interest for prison officials but pointed out that in his deposition, Williams claimed that he needed the death certificate so he could pursue an appeal of his conviction rather than as a trophy. The assertion by prison officials that he was going to use the death certificate as a trophy without any supporting evidence, was insufficient to justify the confiscation of his mail. Prison officials could have avoided this controversy if they held on to the death certificate until he wanted a copy of it to include in his appeal. Instead they imposed a blanket prohibition against him having any ability to have access to this document. If they had testimony from a fellow inmate that Williams had made statements that he wanted the death certificate as a trophy, they may have prevailed in this lawsuit. But all the Court had was Williams testifying that he needed this document to pursue an appeal without any evidence to rebut this claim by prison officials. The Court upheld the dismissal against the defendants not involved in the confiscation of his mail but the lawsuit is reinstated against the remaining defendants.
This case establishes that inmates are entitled to send and receive mail and that in order to stop that from happening, prison officials need more than just a mere allegation.