Chatman v. Clarke et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Chief United States District Judge Glen E. Conrad on 12/29/2016. (slt)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF VIRGINIA
CHRISTOPHER L. CHATMAN,
HAROLD CLARKE, DIRECTOR, ET AL., )
CASE NO. 7:16CV00509
By: Glen E. Conrad
Chief United States District Judge
Christopher L. Chatman, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se, filed this civil rights action
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that excluding him from access to email in prison violates
his First Amendment rights. Upon review of the record, the court finds that the action must be
Chatman alleges the following sequence of facts related to his claims.
Department of Corrections (“VDOC”) officials have classified Chatman as Security Level S,
long-term segregation. He has been incarcerated in a long-term segregation unit at Red Onion
State Prison (“Red Onion”) since April 7, 2016.
VDOC inmates were recently granted an opportunity to participate in a web-based
program that allows them to send and receive secure email messages. Most inmates can receive
or send such messages from a kiosk dedicated for the purpose, with postage-like stamps required
for outgoing messages. Per the VDOC policy on inmate correspondence, “Secure messaging is a
privilege. [O]ffenders assigned to a Special Housing Unit will not be provided access to the
kiosk to retrieve or send their secure messages.” (Compl. Ex. A, at 1, ECF No. 1-1.) This policy
also provides: “Offenders assigned to long term segregation facilities will not have access to
kiosks but may access secure messaging” by facility mailroom staff printing and delivering
messages to the offender through the facility mail.” (Id.) (emphasis added).
In May 2016, Chatman filed a request for Red Onion mailroom staff to have copies of his
incoming messages printed out and delivered to him, per VDOC policy. Defendant Shortridge,
Red Onion’s operations manager, responded: Special Housing Unit will not be provided access
to kiosk.” (Compl. 3, ECF No. 1.) Chatman then filed a grievance on the matter. In the Level I
response, a supervisory official deemed the grievance unfounded and wrote:
LOP 830.A establishes kiosk access as an incentive for Security Level “S”
offenders to progress in the [Red Onion] Segregation Reduction Step-Down
Program. Kiosk privileges are earned once Security Level “S” offenders have
successfully completed the requirements of their assigned pathway (SM or IM),
had a reduction in Security level from Security Level “S” to Security Level 6 and
are housed in Step-Down Phase 1 or IM Closed pods. Due to your current
Security Level “S” assignment, you do not have access to secure messages.
(Id. Ex., at 9, ECF No. 1-1.) Chatman appealed. At Level II, a regional administrator wrote:
The Level I response from Red Onion State Prison is inappropriate. Procedural
violations are noted. [OP] 803.1 Offender Correspondence is the governing
The decision of the Level I respondent is reversed to FOUNDED. The
administrative remedy is to print out your messages and deliver them to you.
Level II is the last level of appeal for this grievance.
(Id. Ex., at 10.) Nevertheless, Shortridge has continued to refuse to deliver Chatman’s messages
to him under Red Onion’s Step-Down Procedure.
Chatman filed this § 1983 action against Shortridge, seeking declaratory, injunctive, and
monetary relief. He also sues the Red Onion warden and the director of the VDOC for failing to
ensure that he can receive his secure kiosk messages as provided by policy.
The court is required to dismiss any action or claim filed by a prisoner against a
governmental entity or officer if the court determines the action or claim is frivolous, malicious,
or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1). In order to
state a claim in any federal civil action, the plaintiff’s “[f]actual allegations must be enough to
raise a right to relief above the speculative level,” to one that is “plausible on its face,” rather
than merely “conceivable.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007).
To state a cause of action under §1983, a plaintiff must establish that he has been
deprived of rights guaranteed by the Constitution or laws of the United States and that this
deprivation resulted from conduct committed by a person acting under color of state law. West
v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988).
While prisoners have a First Amendment right to
communicate with the outside world, see Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401, 411-12 (1989),
they do not have a constitutional right to a particular form of communication, such as access to
email. Edington v. Warden of FCI Elkton, No. 4:14CV2397, 2015 WL 1843240, at *3 (N.D.
Ohio Apr. 22, 2015) (unpublished) (citing other cases). 1 Chatman clearly has the ability to
communicate with the outside world through the regular mail, as he posted his § 1983 Complaint
to the court. He has not been deprived of his First Amendment rights here.
See, e.g., Bristow v. Amber, No. 2:12–cv–412, 2012 WL 1963577, at *2-3 (S.D. Ohio May 31,
2012) (prisoners do not have a First Amendment right to access email); Grayson v. Federal Bureau of
Prisons, No. 5:11CV2, 2012 WL 380426, at *3 (N.D. W.Va. Feb. 6, 2012) (“[P]risoners have no First
Amendment constitutional right to access email.”); Rueb v. Zavaras, No. 09–cv–02817–REB–MEH, 2011
WL 839320, at *6 (D. Colo. Mar.7, 2011) (‘[I]nmates have no established First Amendment right to
access email.”); Holloway v. Magness, No. 5:07cv88, 2011 WL 204891, at *7 (E.D. Ark. Jan. 21, 2011)
(“[A]ssuming that the free speech clause of the First Amendment requires prisons to permit
communication between prisoners and persons outside the prison, it does not follow that the First
Amendment requires that the government provide telephones, videoconferencing, email, or any of the
other marvelous forms of technology that allow instantaneous communication across geographical
distances; the First Amendment is a limit on the exercise of governmental power, not a source of positive
obligation on the part of the government.”).
Moreover, to the extent that Red Onion’s secure message restriction on Level S offenders
infringes on Chatman’s First Amendment right, nevertheless, the restriction is constitutional. It
is well established that “some [First Amendment] rights are simply inconsistent with the status of
a prisoner or ‘with the legitimate penological objectives of the corrections system.’” Shaw v.
Murphy, 532 U.S. 223, 229 (2001) (quoting Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S. 817, 822 (1974)).
Maintaining security, order, and discipline are essential goals of a corrections system, and prison
officials, therefore, are accorded wide latitude in the adoption and application of prison policies
and procedures. See Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 546-47 (1979). “[B]ecause ‘the problems of
prisons in America are complex and intractable,’ and because courts are particularly ‘ill
equipped’ to deal with these problems, [courts] generally have deferred to the judgments of
prison officials in upholding these regulations against constitutional challenge.” Shaw, 532 U.S.
at 229. “[W]hen a prison regulation impinges on inmates’ constitutional rights, the regulation is
valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.” Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S.
78, 89 (1987). To determine the reasonableness of a particular prison regulation, the court
considers four factors:
(1) whether there is a “valid, rational connection” between the prison regulation
or action and the interest asserted by the government, or whether this interest is
“so remote as to render the policy arbitrary or irrational”; (2) whether “alternative
means of exercising the right remain open to prison inmates”; (3) what impact the
desired accommodation would have on security staff, inmates, and the allocation
of prison resources; and (4) whether there exist any “obvious, easy alternatives”
to the challenged regulation or action.
Lovelace v. Lee, 472 F.3d 174, 200 (quoting Turner, 482 U.S. at 89-92 (internal brackets
omitted). Chatman bears the burden of “overcom[ing] the presumption that the prison officials
acted within their broad discretion.” Shaw, 532 U.S. at 232.
Red Onion’s restriction on kiosk messages satisfies this Turner standard. The connection
between the challenged regulation and prison interests is clear. Reserving for Security Level 6
offenders the privilege of receiving or sending kiosk messages furthers the prison’s interest in
offering Level S offenders an incentive to work toward achieving Level 6 status. Chatman
retains, at a minimum, the alternative of regular mail as a means of exercising his right to
communicate with those outside the prison. Lifting the restriction on kiosk messages would
eliminate an important incentive to progress out of Level S status and would require Red Onion
mail staff to expend more time and effort to print out secure messages for the many Level S
inmates. Furthermore, Chatman fails to offer any obvious or easy alternatives to this restriction
to achieve the same goals. Therefore, the court concludes that Red Onion’s kiosk restrictions
pass constitutional muster and survive Chatman’s First Amendment challenge under § 1983.
Finally, Chatman’s evidence of conflict between VDOC-wide inmate correspondence
regulations and Red Onion’s local program restriction of kiosk messaging presents, at most, a
possible violation of VDOC policy.
State officials’ failure to abide by state procedural
regulations is not a federal due process issue, and is, therefore, not actionable under § 1983.
Riccio v. Cnty. of Fairfax, 907 F.2d 1459, 1469 (4th Cir. 1990) (“If state law grants more
procedural rights than the Constitution would otherwise require, a state’s failure to abide by that
law is not a federal due process issue.”).
For the reasons stated, the court dismisses Chatman’s complaint without prejudice,
pursuant to § 1915A(b)(1), for failure to state a claim. An appropriate order will enter this day.
The Clerk is directed to send copies of this memorandum opinion and accompanying
order to plaintiff.
ENTER: This 29th day of December, 2016.
s/Glen E. Conrad________________
Chief United States District Judge
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