March 17, 2017
A federal judge has dismissed a civil rights lawsuit brought by a Pennsylvania inmate after jail personnel destroyed a birthday card made for him by his 5-year-old daughter.
But Norman Vega, 33, a Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, man incarcerated at Berks County Jail in Leesport while awaiting a jury trial on first-degree murder charges, will have an opportunity to amend his complaint, U.S. District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter ruled.
Vega had sued the jail's warden and three employees alleging his First, Fifth and 14th Amendment rights were violated by the alleged destruction of a belated birthday card mailed to him on May 18, 2016, by his young daughter.
"... a child’s birthday card sent to an imprisoned father is no trifle, even though it may not suffice as a cause of action." – U.S. District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter, in a memorandum to the Vega order
Upon learning she wanted to send him a card with a drawing made in colored pencil, Vega asked jail officials via an internal correspondence system if he was permitted to receive such a drawing. He was already aware of an existing ban on inmates receiving drawings in crayon.
After telling his family the jail also banned colored pencil drawings, his family informed Vega they would mail him a card with a drawing by his daughter in pen and pencil.
Vega, who lived in the J Unit of the jail, did not receive the birthday card. When he asked the jail's mailroom if the card had been received, the mailroom supervisor, Michael Mullen, responded by giving the inmate an envelope with 20 photos and a form stating a letter had been destroyed because it had crayon markings.
When Vega asked why he wasn't given an opportunity to challenge the destruction of the card, Mullen told him: "I have explained this several times. Confiscated items are destroyed. You will not be called in advance for disposition of the item."
Vega subsequently contested the birthday card's destruction in an Inmate Grievance Form. In response to that grievance, Lt. Booking Supervisor Jennifer Sharp said jail personnel had previously informed Vega what mail was acceptable through prior inquiries and the Inmate Handbook. Sharp communicated that jail personnel would “not call inmates down to the mailroom to look at contraband items when they have already been advised of what is acceptable.”
Vega appealed the denial of his grievance up the chain of command, but authorities ultimately denied the grievance. So Vega filed suit in August 2016, seeking a preliminary and permanent injunction ordering the jail to cease its practice of destroying incoming U.S. mail property belonging to inmates, as well as compensatory and punitive damages of $10,000 each, per defendant.
On Wednesday, Pratter granted the defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint, which argued failure to state a claim for which relief can be granted, but the judge left open the possibility of Vega amending his complaint before April 10. In her memorandum explaining her order, Pratter seemed sympathetic to Vega's experience.
"This case dramatizes — perhaps in a small, yet undeniably poignant way — the human price paid by parent and child alike when one of them is in prison," Pratter wrote. "It is hard to know whether to think first of educator Patty S. Hill who is credited with giving title to the song “Happy Birthday to You” in the 19th century or of Chapter 16 of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, in which the unescapable nature of punishment of the family of a prisoner is exposed.
"The Court is mindful of the principle de minimis non curat lex [Latin for 'the law is not concerned with trifles.']" she wrote. "But, as discussed below, a child’s birthday card sent to an imprisoned father is no trifle, even though it may not suffice as a cause of action."
In denying the First Amendment claim, specifically, Pratter wrote that "the Court acknowledges the very human instinct of a parent seeking to enjoy all tangible indicia of a child’s affection, an instinct that may well take on even greater power and significance from behind bars."
Pratter's memorandum suggested Vega may have two avenues to explore if he chooses to amend his complaint.
"...Notwithstanding being perplexed by the penological prohibition at the root of this case, the Court will grant Defendants’ motion with an acknowledgement that Mr. Vega may endeavor to file an amended pleading that will prompt an inquiry to the panel of lawyers who may be available to handle prisoners’ civil rights claims.," she wrote.
Her memorandum also noted there is no mention in case materials of any explanation regarding the origin, purpose or justification for the Berks County jail's anti-color rule.
"At this point, the rule itself has not been challenged, though in a future iteration of this dispute — should Mr. Vega attempt to file an amended pleading — it may well be that the prohibition will be a focus of a claim," the judge wrote.
It is unknown whether Vega will pursue further action, but Pratter wanted him to know that her rejection of the current claim in no way minimized his feelings as a father. She wrote in a footnote:
"Again, in reaching this legal conclusion, the Court by no means intends to belittle or disregard the very understandable emotional value to Mr. Vega of something such as his child’s acknowledgment of his birthday."