Our office receives a fair amount of phone calls from friends and family of inmates in prison who ask about the rights of inmates because they believe the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) may be violating their loved one’s rights in some way.
The following summary of a recently reported decision, In re Alan Reed Dohner and William Reno Gerber, from the Fourth Appellate District Court filed June 3, 2022, clarifies the property rights of inmates.
Alan Reed Dohner and William Reno Gerber were, when their lawsuits were filed, general population inmates living in dormitory housing at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison (CVSP). They both asserted that they had the right to possess a personal television in their cells, rather than being limited to shared televisions located in common areas.
The trial court rejected their claims and denied their request for a writ of habeas corpus without issuing an order to show cause and sustaining the CDCR’s demurrer to their claims for a writ of mandate and declaratory relief.
Dohner and Gerber then appealed to the Fourth Appellate District, which affirmed the trial court’s rulings.
This article, however, is helpful to understanding how personal property rights are set and enforced in prison.
Inmates in California prisons may possess only certain personal property as permitted by California Code of Regulations, title 15, section 3006. There is a list of authorized personal and religious property described in an “Authorized Personal Property Schedule” (APPS) that is incorporated by reference into § 3006 via title 15, § 3009.
Individual facilities, however, may request and obtain exemptions from the CDCR from that standardized list. For example, under the APPS applicable to the general population prisoners like Dohner and Gerber, inmates often may possess a personal television. This is not true, however, at CVSP after the CDCR granted CVSP an exemption from the APPS in 2005 because there is “little or no reception” for television signals at CVSP due to the prison’s remote location and although CVSP uses a satellite for general TV broadcasting, the dormitory housing units were not equipped for cable. In addition, the prison had an already-overloaded electrical system, particularly in the summer months with a high need for air conditioning.
Consequently, when inmates are transferred to CVSP from a facility that permits them to permitted personal TV’s, inmates were given the option of mailing it home at their own expense or disposing of it.
Dohner brought his action against the CDCR, as well as the CDCR Secretary and the CVSP Warden in April 2017. In June 2017, Gerber and six other CVSP inmates joined the action and filed a first amended petition for habeas corpus or writ of mandate and requested declaratory relief that it was unconstitutional to deny a prisoner a personal television.
After the trial court denied Dohner, et al.’s petition, Dohner appealed to the Fourth Appellate District Court. In their appeal, they noted that the United States Supreme Court has, in a variety of contexts, found the First Amendment to guarantee “not only the right to speak and publish, but also the right to hear, to learn, to know.” Presidents Council, Dist. 25 v. Community School Board No. 25 (1972) 409 U.S. 998, 999.
As a matter of procedure, however, the Fourth Appellate District commented that “in noncapital cases, if the superior court denies a petition for writ of habeas corpus, the petitioner has no statutory right to appeal. Instead, the petitioner must file a new, original petition, generally, in the Court of Appeal.” Robinson v. Lewis (2020) 9 Cal. 5th 883, 895.
While Dohner, et al., did not do this, the Fourth Appellate District explained that it had discretion to deem the original petition filed in the trial court to be an original petition also filed in the Court of Appeal so that it could decide the case on its merits.
The Fourth Appellate District then denied the petition, explaining that Dohner, et al., did not cite to any case that holds there is a constitutional right to watch television at all while incarcerated or detained, let alone the right to possess a personal television so programs can be watched privately, rather than on a shared television.
On the contrary, courts have universally rejected such arguments (See, e.g., Rahman X v. Morgan (8th Cir., 2002) 300 F. 3d 970, 973 – 974 [no denial of due process or cruel and unusual punishment from inmate’s lack of access to television in his cell]; Murphy w. Walker (7th Cir., 1995) 51 F.3d 714, 718, fn. 8 [denial of television not a constitutional violation]; More v. Farrier (8th Cir., 1993) 984 F. 2d 269, 271 [“Despite television’s importance in modern society, appellees have no fundamental right to in-cell cable television”]).
We present this article because we have found that inmates are keen to fight for every right they potentially have in prison and television rights are a common issue.
For more information about prison conditions that may be illegal, please click on the following articles: