A prison inmate who says the state’s limitations on his mailings violates his constitutional rights can proceed with a lawsuit, a federal judge has ruled.
Northern District Judge Glenn Suddaby (See Profile) concluded that Timothy Vail has sufficiently pleaded, at this stage of the litigation, that getting no more than five envelopes at any one time to send his mail violates his rights under the First and Fourteenth amendments.
Rejecting the state’s motion to dismiss, Suddaby said in Vail v. Smith, 9:12-cv-0234, that he found "plausible" Vail’s pro se claim that the restrictions meant that he did not have enough envelopes for the mail he wanted to send on 41 days between May 2010 and October 2010.
During that period, Vail maintained that the restrictions he faced while in solitary confinement at Shawangunk Correctional Facility in Ulster County delayed his sending some letters for two or three days if he ran out of envelopes just before a weekend. The envelopes were replaced the day after they were mailed, with prisoners getting one blank envelope for each envelope sent.
In general, there are no restrictions on inmate mailing as long as they can purchase postage and envelopes.
But special mail restrictions apply to Vail and about 4,500 other inmates who are in special disciplinary housing units at any one time. Unlike inmates in the general population, they do not have to pay for their postage-paid envelopes.
Vail has been in a special housing unit of the maximum-security Shawangunk facility since his successful, but brief, 2003 escape with another prisoner from the Elmira Correctional Facility. The two were captured the following day in what has become the last escape from a secure state prison in New York (See Report on the escape).
Vail contended that the envelope restrictions violate constitutional protections against the free flow of his mail and his freedom of speech.
While Suddaby said there is some confusion in the wording of Vail’s pro se claim, the judge was reading the complaint to allege there are unconstitutional restrictions on both legal and personal mail.
Suddaby said the distinction will be straightened out as more information is collected in future filings.
The state argued that Vail failed to raise a valid claim that it was violating his right to send legal mail and that, at worst, his flow of correspondence suffered only a minor "impairment" and was not "significantly" affected by the prison rules.
Suddaby also said that, as the record in the case is developed, the state could successfully make the argument that it is protected from liability by the doctrine of qualified immunity based on application of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit’s ruling in Redd v. Wright, 597 F.3d 532 (2010).
Vail, 43, said that one of the purposes for sending more letters is his desire to "communicate with the outside world due to solitary conditions" he has experienced since September 2003.
He is scheduled to complete serving 10 years in the special housing unit for his prison break this September.
All together, he is serving a 52-year-to-life sentence for raping and murdering Mary Kopyar during a burglary of the Binghamton law office of Rosefsky, D’Esti & Chupp in 1989. He is not first eligible for parole until 2041.
Linda Foglia, a spokeswoman for the state prison system, declined to comment yesterday on Vail’s suit other than to say, "We believe that allowing five envelopes at any given time is a reasonable limit."
Assistant Attorney General Adele Taylor-Scott represented the defendants, who included Shawangunk superintendent Joseph Smith, on behalf of the state attorney general’s office.
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