Pre-Trial Detainee Loses First Amendment Claim for Skype Visitation

Florida jail officials did not violate the First Amendment by refusing Skype visitation to a pre-trial detainee, a federal district court has ruled.   The decision shows the deference courts give to jail officials’ security concerns.

Michael George Young, Jr. was a pre-trial detainee at the Lee County Jail.  He desired visitation contact with his daughter, who served in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Fort Bliss, Texas.  Young requested Skype visitation with his daughter.  Jail officials denied his request, citing security concerns.  

Young eventually sued in federal court, alleging a variety of constitutional claims.  One of his claims was that the jail’s denial of Skype visitation violated his First Amendment-based right to intimate association.

On August 24, 2017, U.S. District Court Judge Sheri Poster Chappell ruled in favor of the jail officials in Young v. Scott.  The judge applied the test for evaluating inmate claims under Turner v. Safley (1987).  Under Safley, a jail regulation does not violate the First Amendment so long as the policy is reasonably related to legitimate penological concerns, such as valid security concerns.

Judge Chappell accepted the security concerns advanced by the jail officials, including that officials could not ensure that the non-detained person on Skype would not pass messages, plan escapes, engage in gang or other criminal activity, or compromise the jail’s network.  

Typically, security risks are greater when inmates have actual, physical visitors, as those visitors conceivably could smuggle in contraband to the inmates.  Skype communication with a person in another state would not present those risks.  

However, prison officials are often quite creative in coming up with a laundry list of security concerns.  

The result is harsh one, as the pre-trial detainee simply wanted to communicate with his daughter.  But, under the current law the judge’s decision comported with the application of the very deferential standard in Safley.  

Judge Chappell explained:

“At this point in time, advancements in technology do not help [Young’s] cause given the security risks to the jail.”

 

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