WOODS v. COMMISSIONER OF THE INDIANA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS (July 19, 2011)

In 2005, the Commissioner of the Indiana Department of Corrections suspected that inmates were using pen-pal internet sites to fraudulently obtain money. The Commissioner ordered an investigation. An investigator reviewed pen-pal websites, interviewed several pen-pals, read the online profiles of hundreds of inmates, and investigated the source of funds deposited into inmates' trust accounts. The investigation concluded that most inmates misrepresent themselves on pen-pal websites and that some pen-pals felt deceived by inmates but it was unable to substantiate any meaningful financial fraud. Nevertheless, the investigator recommended capping inmates' trust accounts, limiting the source of trust account funds to family members and other authorized individuals, and prohibiting inmates from soliciting money or advertising for pen-pals. The Department adopted the latter two recommendations. Inmates brought a class action suit against the Department, alleging that the regulations violated the First Amendment. Judge Magnus-Stinson (S.D. Ind.) granted summary judgment to the Department. The inmates appeal.

In their opinion, Judges Bauer, Posner, and Manion affirmed. The Court first noted that First Amendment rights can be curtailed more broadly in the present context than otherwise. A prison regulation need only be "reasonably related to legitimate penological interests" to be upheld. And even the plaintiffs concede that the department has a legitimate interest in preventing inmates from fraudulently soliciting money from pen-pals. The only question, therefore, is whether the limitations adopted by the Department are reasonably related to that objective. To be so, the regulation must have a valid and rational connection with the objective, the inmates must have alternative ways of exercising their rights, the impact on the rest of the prison community and staff must be considered, and there may not be a less restrictive alternative that achieves the same goal. The Court found the test met. First, the regulation is directly related to the goal of preventing fraud. Second, the inmates have alternative ways of exercising their First Amendment rights. They can still send and receive letters, they receive newspapers and magazines, and they can even develop pen-pals through groups that visit the prison. Third, it is reasonable to believe that lifting the ban would result in more inmate fraud and put a greater burden on prison staff. Finally, the Court rejected the inmates' contention that the source limitation for inmates' trust accounts was a sufficient alternative, without the additional pen-pal solicitation ban. It recognized that the source limitation could be very effective but deferred to the prison administrators' judgment that the ban was also required.