When Prisons Read Mail

The United States government certified Thomas Matherly as a sexually dangerous person in November of 2006 while he was serving a prison sentence for possession of child pornography at a federal prison just outside of Durham, North Carolina.  In 2012, a district court civilly committed him as a sexually dangerous person, and he has remained housed at the Maryland Unit for civil detainees since then.


While civilly detained, Matherly sued the Federal Bureau of Prisons for, among other things, violations of his First Amendment rights because the Bureau inspects his incoming and outgoing mail.  The Bureau began this practice after random inspections of mail from civil detainees showed that the detainees were discussing hurting kids and setting up visits for the purpose of molesting children.  While there is no official written policy for monitoring the detainees’ mail, the practice is for Bureau employees to review mail, looking for content showing sexual deviance or glorifying the victimization of others.

Matherly argued that this review of his mail was unconstitutional because it cannot be construed as being reasonably related to a legitimate interest of the government.  But the Court found that, because the policy (despite being an unwritten policy) was enacted to mitigate the threats found in random inspections and serves to protect established legitimate interests in detainee rehabilitation and public protection.  The Fourth Circuit therefore found the Bureau’s mail-review policy constitutional.

(In a different case decided around the same time, the Ninth Circuit found for the third time in three years that Arizona prison officials violated prisoners’ constitutional rights by reading in detail their correspondence with their lawyers.)

Case: Matherly v. Andrews, No. 16-6473 (4th Cir. June 8, 2017) (opinion here)


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