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10th Cir: Prison Can Restrict Terrorists' Pen Pals, Books

By Robyn Hagan Cain on August 08, 2012 4:02 PM

Prisoners' constitutional rights are curtailed when they're serving hard time. For convicted terrorists in U.S. prisons, rights are even more limited.

According to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, that's A-OK.

Mohamed Rashed Al-Owhali was convicted of several terrorism-related offenses stemming from the 1998 bombing of the United States embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. He is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole at the United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum, in Florence, Colorado.

Since his arrest, the CBA CLE Legal Connection reports that Al-Owhali has been subject to Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), which impose special restrictions on his imprisonment. Starting in 2004, Al-Owhali's SAMs prohibited him from corresponding with his nieces and nephews through letters. His 2004 SAMs further forbid him from receiving two Arabic-language newspapers that he had previously been provided.

In addition to these explicit SAMs restrictions, Al-Owhali alleges that officials prohibited him from receiving a copy of former President Jimmy Carter's book Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid.

Al-Owhali sued, claiming that the SAMs violated his constitutional rights. The district court dismissed the suit, finding that Al-Owhali failed to allege sufficient facts to support his claims under Ashcroft v. Iqbal. On appeal, he challenged the prohibitions on communication with his nieces and nephews, two Arabic-language newspapers, and President Carter's book.

Courts will uphold a regulation that impinges on inmates' constitutional rights if the regulation is "reasonably related to legitimate penological interests." The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals uses the following factors to guide its review in such cases:

  1. Whether a rational connection exists between the prison policy regulation and a legitimate governmental interest advanced as its justification
  2. Whether alternative means of exercising the right are available notwithstanding the policy or regulation
  3. What effect accommodating the exercise of the right would have on guards, other prisoners, and prison resources generally, and
  4. Whether ready, easy-to-implement alternatives exist that would accommodate the prisoner's rights.

Al-Owhali bore the burden of demonstrating that there was no legitimate, rational basis for the increased communication restrictions.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Al-Owhali failed to satisfy his burden of proof, and noted that the "deficiencies in his pleadings are especially clear given the government's proffered justifications for imposing SAMs."

Citing a lack of plausible facts in his pleadings, the appellate court found that Al-Owhali's claims were properly dismissed.

The lesson here is to plead carefully. Prisoners occasionally prevail in prison reading ban disputes, but they can't do so unless they allege sufficient facts to support their claims.

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