Arizona Department of Corrections Can't Read Prisoner Legal Mail, Appeals Court Says

Categories: News

A death-row inmate's fight against the Arizona Department of Corrections reading his letters to his attorney lives on.

A court had initially dismissed Scott Nordstrom's lawsuit seeking to prevent the ADC from reading legal mail, but the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week to reverse the dismissal, saying Nordstrom's allegations, if true, would be a violation of his Sixth Amendment rights.

"We think it's the correct decision, and it's outrageous that the Arizona Department of Corrections thinks it can read confident mail between attorneys and their clients," Prison Law Office executive director Donald Specter tells New Times.

See also:
-Robert Jones, Seven-Time Murderer, Executed

Nordstrom was sentenced to death for his role in a pair of deadly armed robberies in Tucson in 1996. He and Robert Jones combined to kill two people at a smoke shop, and two weeks later combined to kill four while robbing a firefighters' union hall. Jones was executed in October.

Nordstrom filed a lawsuit against the Arizona Department of Corrections after alleging that a prison guard read a letter Nordstrom had written to the court-appointed attorney representing him in the appeal of his conviction and death sentence.

Although state prison policy says legal mail "shall not be read or censored but shall be inspected for contraband and sealed in the presence of the inmate," ADC Director Charles Ryan responded to Nordstrom's complaint, saying his staff was not prohibited from reading such mail in order to check for contraband.

The appeals court's majority opinion states:

"A prison is no ordinary gated community It's a tough place. Corrections officials obviously have good reason to be on the lookout for contraband, escape plans, and other mischief that could jeopardize institutional security. Officials likewise have every right to inspect an inmate's outgoing legal mail for such suspicious features as maps of the prison yard, the times of guards' shift changes, and the like. Prison officials know what to look for. But inspecting letters and reading them are two different things, as the Supreme Court recognized . . .

"What prison officials don't have the right to do is read a confidential letter from an inmate to his lawyer. This is because it is highly likely that a prisoner would not feel free to confide in his lawyer such things as incriminating or intimate personal information - as is his Sixth Amendment right to do - if he knows that the guards are reading his mail."

This decision doesn't force the ADC to change its policy on reading legal mail, but it does revive Nordstrom's lawsuit over the issue.

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Our whole sense of justice has become "Just-Ice", cold and uncaring. However, I do give kudos to the 9th circuit court for standing up and rendering the right decision for all the prisoners in any prison. These prisoners have lost all physical privacy, as it is and too have lost the right to communicate openly with their attorneys by letter is more than unconstitutional. I know of two men in prison who are there on hearsay, because the legal system is so overloaded that the cases are pushed through the courts and defended by overworked (or non caring) attorneys. We see more and more that even those who have taken an oath to protect and serve are just as guilty, as those they put in prison except, they don't pay the price we do. Even the families of the accused have no privacy. The system changed in the Detention Centers by not allowing the exchange of letters,but postcards only. It is hard to communicate to each other, when you only have a 4 x 8 card to convey what you need the family to find, for your defense. The "excuse" for this change was that the Center only had one person to "read" the outgoing and incoming mail. (This was easier than hiring another person to help?) And my final thought about this whole thing: If the letter is addressed to the Attorney what's so hard about checking that address, to be sure that is where the prisoners letter is going? Because,if anyone thinks the Attorney will aid and abet a prisoner, at the pace a pro bono attorney gets back to their client, there won't be a "quick and speedy" one anytime soon.


I can tell you as a former employee, nobody is trying to read their mail. The practice that guards would perform is: approach the cell, get the inmates attention and his signature for what he was about to receive (legal document mail) open the mail (ifo the inmate) then "scan" the often multi page letter for any wording/instructions/code that could be slipped into the document that would/couldn't normally be slipped by in non-legal mail, that could be to the detriment of the institution. Guards would do this so quickly, it would be obtusely ignorant to believe that any of them could actually read legal jargon that fast, instead of just looking for sentences/paragraphs that seemed out of place of what should be in legal papers, while moving their finger rapidly over the hundreds/thousands of words. Even if a guard wanted to read a prisoners entire legal letter and I never met one that did, they simply wouldn't have the time to do so as it is an assigned collateral duty that must be performed in addition to the numerous other chores waiting for him or her, but that's another story. If you ask 99% of the prisoners they'll tell you just what I told you.

Lakeisha  Williams
Lakeisha Williams

They still have a right to a defence. Which means their defence strategies should not be shared or exposed. Even if they are proven guilty...As long as a right to appeal exists. Inmates have a right to seek PRIVATE legal counsel. Sometimes appeals are successful.

valleynative topcommenter

The issue really comes down to the difference between "inspecting the contents" of the mail and "reading the mail". Legally speaking, that's a pretty fine line.

Emma Watkins
Emma Watkins

Oh... So they can break the law, violate other people rights, however, the same does not apply to them? Interesting


Arizona is going to experience what North Carolina, Alabama and LA. did years ago, that the federal government trumps their delusion of grandeur that they can commit illegal acts forever, and sadly the folks responsible will hide behind color of law and be exempt from citizen law suits for the huge tax bill we will get to fix this mess!

Cozz topcommenter

Ahhhh, poor babies, they can't violate Constitutional laws...

But man they sure keep trying...

Arizona, where corruption no's no bounds.


Arizona pigs simply have no respect for the US Constitution.


@SpottedDick The hell you say, according to their ads and websites, they're all Constitooshunal scholars that will enforce their Constitooshun upon all of us, even if it's unconstitutional.



The great irony of money is you cannot take it with you when your short time as we all have on this ole earth is over! And I do love the biblical parable of how hard it will be for the rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, as hard as a camel going through the eye of a needle! I can just see them packing them camels while us common folks walk and hit that fork in the path, our hardest decision was did we in life chose the wide easy one or the hard and narrow one!:-)

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