Prisoner’s right to contact family does not give claim for denial of overseas calls

In an unreported opinion, the Sixth Circuit US Court of Appeals gave qualified immunity to Michigan prison officials who forbid a prisoner from talking to his family overseas.  The prison had a policy against calls to certain countries, and to speaking in code or unknown languages.

The Court held that the generalized right to contact family must yield to legitimate penological interests.  Because no prior case specifically indicated that overseas calls could not be limited in this way, the individual defendants (who had suffered a verdict of $1 each) must be shielded by qualified immunity.

Why is a $1 case interesting?  Because the case illustrates the adherence to the requirements of the Al-kidd v. Ashcroft case that the contours of the claimed right must be very specific to put the official on notice that his or her conduct violates the constitution.  The right to contact family was not enough; the plaintiff had to prove that cases recognized the right to contact family overseas by telephone and speak in a foreign tongue.

The Court left a bit ambiguous whether  the specific right to call family overseas now exists, but a cautious official would allow it or have a good reason not to.

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