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Reading Death Row Prisoner’s Legal Mail States Sixth Amendment Claim

The Ninth Circuit has held that a prison guard’s act of reading a prisoner’s legal mail – not merely inspecting or scanning it – constitutes a Sixth Amendment violation.

The Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s order dismissing, at the screening stage, a pro se civil rights action filed by Arizona death row prisoner Scott D. Nordstrom. Nordstrom alleged in his complaint that on May 2, 2011, he prepared a letter to mail to an attorney challenging his murder conviction.

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Ninth Circuit: Damages Required for Compelled Religious-Based Treatment

By Mark Wilson

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that damages are required, as a matter of law, when a parolee is incarcerated for objecting to compelled participation in a religious-based drug treatment program.

Citing “uncommonly well-settled case law,” the Court of Appeals found in 2007 that the First Amendment is violated when the state coerces an individual to attend a religious-based substance abuse program. See: Inouyev.Kemna, 504 F.3d 705 (9th Cir. 2007).

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) contracts with Westcare, a private entity, to provide drug and alcohol treatment for parolees in Northern California. Westcare, in turn, contracts with Empire Recovery Center, a non-profit facility. “Empire uses a 12-step recovery program, developed by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, that includes references to ‘God’ and to ‘higher power.’”

Barry A. Hazle, Jr., an atheist, was incarcerated due to California drug convictions. His parole conditions required him to complete a 90-day residential drug treatment program.

Prior to his February 26, 2007 release from prison, Hazle had asked prison and Westcare officials to place him in a non-religious treatment program. Westcare officials directed Hazle to Empire.

When Hazle realized Empire was a religious-based program, he repeatedly objected to Westcare officials. They responded “that the only alternative to Empire was a treatment facility whose program had an even greater focus on religion.”

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