US Court Defends Right To Communicate With Federal Prisoners—And Advocate For Them

U.S. court orders Federal Bureau of Prisons to restore a prison reform advocate's electronic messaging access at six facilities

US Court Defends Right To Communicate With Federal Prisoners—And Advocate For Them
Nicknamed "Misery Mountain" by prisoners, United States Penitentiary Hazelton is part of Federal Correctional Complex Hazelton. More Than Our Crimes co-founder Pamela Bailey was blocked from messaging prisoners at the complex.

The following article was made possible by paid subscribers of The Dissenter. Become a subscriber with this special offer and support independent journalism on press freedom.

The United States Federal Bureau of Prisons violated the First Amendment rights of federal prison reform advocate Pamela Bailey when they blocked her from sending electronic messages to prisoners at six facilities.

A U.S. court ordered [PDF] the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to restore Bailey’s access to the Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System, or TRULINCS, which gives federal prisoners the ability to send and receive electronic messages while still denying them access to the internet. The BOP was also prohibited from “blocking Ms. Bailey’s TRULINCS communication with inmates at those facilities.”

In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that journalists have no First Amendment right to interview federal prisoners (or state prisoners, for that matter). But unless there is a valid security reason for preventing communication with a prisoner, advocates like Bailey have a right under the First Amendment to gather information that is in the public interest.

Bailey is a freelance journalist and co-founder of More Than Our Crimes, which is an organization that works to ensure that the voices of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals are included in the “growing wave of reform proposals” aimed at ending mass incarceration. 

According to a complaint [PDF] filed on April 24, since March 2022, the BOP has allegedly engaged in an "ongoing campaign to frustrate and prevent [Bailey] from publishing information that criticizes and calls for reform.” Bailey further alleged that the BOP had retaliated against prisoners, or sources, who revealed details about abusive conditions. 

The court recounted how the BOP blocked Bailey from communicating with prisoners at Federal Correctional Complex Hazelton in West Virginia around November 2, 2023. 

“This was approximately a month after a letter from U.S. senators citing Ms. Bailey’s advocacy seemingly led the U.S. Attorney’s Office to establish a hotline for information related to civil rights abuses at the facility,” the court noted. “And it was only weeks after Ms. Bailey used TRULINCS messaging to discuss with Hazelton inmates recent civil rights abuses and what she believed were attempts by the BOP to frustrate use of the U.S. Attorney hotline.”

At Federal Correctional Institution Ray Brook in New York and U.S. Penitentiary Beaumont in Texas, Bailey exchanged messages with prisoners about conditions at the facilities. The BOP blocked Bailey after she “sent a More Than Our Crimes newsletter to inmates at those facilities.” 

“There is only evidence suggesting that the BOP did so in order to suppress Ms. Bailey’s advocacy critical of the BOP and her conversations with inmates gathering information to support that criticism. Such censorship has no rational relationship to order and security,” the court stated.

The court recognized that there is a “significant public interest in the sort of insight into prison conditions and abuses that More Than Our Crimes provides.” By continuing to block or censor Bailey from communicating with prisoners, Bailey clearly faced an “actual and ongoing loss of her First Amendment freedoms.”

Bailey’s complaint contained “troubling” allegations of retaliation against prisoners who communicated with her. For example, Cory Perry, a prisoner at U.S. Penitentiary Big Sandy in Kentucky, was questioned about the messages he exchanged with Bailey and then placed in solitary confinement for six months. 

At Hazelton, staff pulled Lamar Tucker out of his cell and strip-searched him in apparent retaliation for his communication with Bailey. Staff also fired two prisoners, Joel Vasquez and Jacky Foster, from their prison jobs for providing Bailey with information about an alleged assault.

Sources told Bailey that on October 14, 2023, a lieutenant “ordered a Rastafarian resident to remove his religious head dress and, even after being informed of his religious exemption to wear it, cursed at the resident and tried to forcibly remove him from the dining hall.” 

But the court maintained that the BOP had most likely retaliated against “inmates’ speech describing prison conditions and official abuses” rather than her speech. Since none of the prisoners are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the court ruled against her First Amendment retaliation claim.

Bailey was blocked from communicating with prisoners at Big Sandy, and the court decided that the BOP was justified in their actions because she was allegedly forwarding messages from prisoners at Big Sandy to “third parties” in violation of BOP rules. 

Still, the preliminary injunction issued against the BOP is a victory for advocates and journalists who deal with constant efforts on the part of officials to prevent the disclosure of information—particularly firsthand accounts of abuse and horrid conditions in U.S. prisons.

More Than Our Crimes collaborated on a report with the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs in October 2022. It was titled, "Voices from Within the Federal Bureau of Prisons: a System Designed to Silence and Dehumanize," and covered by the Washington Post.

One father recounted how his son was sexually assaulted "with a baton while he was handcuffed and shackled." One former prisoner described waiting for 12 years for dental care. "I was in prison for 15 years," and, “I went in with 28 teeth and came home with about 14.”

Neither are stories that federal prison officials want the public to read, but they reflect a mass incarceration system resistant to oversight and reform, which is why the work done by individuals like Bailey must be protected by the U.S. courts.