MACON, Ga. (CN) - Public criticism may have led prison officials to suspend the visitation privileges of a woman married to a Georgia inmate, a federal judge ruled.
Miguel Jackson is serving time in a maximum-security unit of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison. Based in Jackson, 46 miles southeast of downtown Atlanta, the prison houses adult male felons, including maximum-security and death-row inmates.
Shortly after he was moved to the prison's special management unit in June 2012, Jackson went on a hunger strike, joined by other inmates who were upset about their assignment to the same unit.
Prison officials said staff monitored the striking inmates daily, as required by Georgia Department of Corrections (DOC) rules, and tried to persuade them to accept meals.
As more inmates joined the strike and refused to submit to medical tests, Jackson's wife Delma spoke to the media and organized several public protests to raise awareness about prison conditions.
Prison warden Carl Humphrey suspended visitation privileges for all inmates participating in the strike two weeks into Jackson's fast. Though Humphrey invoked safety and security reasons for his decision, Delma Jackson attributed it to her public criticism of the prison officials.
Humphrey restored Jackson's visitation privileges in early July, believing that the hunger strike was over. After Delma Jackson held a second rally at the state Capitol, however, eight inmates, including her husband, again refused meals.
Delma Jackson asked for a meeting with the Department of Corrections and threatened that demonstrators would not leave DOC headquarters until the commissioner agreed to see her, according to court papers.
On July 18, 2012, prison officials decided to bar Delma Jackson from seeing her husband, this time indefinitely, citing her public demonstrations and her role in spreading the prison strike.
Jackson told the court that prison officials opened and read her husband's mail and listened to inmates' phone calls that mentioned the hunger strike, the possibility of a strike at another prison, and Jackson's role in organizing the protests.
The officials also received reports about newspaper articles in which Jackson criticized the DOC's treatment of her husband, her documents show.
Miguel Jackson ended his strike on July 26, but prison officials kept his wife's visitation ban in place. Humphrey and his superiors claimed the strike was disruptive to the operation of the prison and jeopardized staff and inmate safety. They cited concerns that Jackson's contact with his wife could encourage him to keep the strike going.
Delma Jackson sued Humphrey and two other officials, claiming that they had ended her visitation privileges in retaliation for her constitutionally protected statements to the press.
U.S. District Judge Marc Treadwell ruled last week that Humphrey and the other officials were entitled to qualified immunity for their actions during the hunger strike.
At the time, prison officials had a proper reason to ban visitation. Though they knew Delma Jackson had challenged prison conditions in rallies and had criticized prison management in news reports, their attempt to put an end to the hunger strike motivated their decision at least in part, according to the 30-page ruling.
Prison administrators could reasonably conclude that Delma Jackson's interactions with her husband prolonged the strike, which threatened prison order and security, disrupted normal operations, and strained prison resources, the order states.
Treadwell also found, however, that the officials provided no legal motive for the continued denial of visitation long after the end of the strike.
"It is clear that once the disturbance caused by the hunger strike ended, the threat the defendants believed the plaintiff posed to prison operations also diminished," Treadwell wrote.
A jury could find that the defendants continued to deny Jackson access to the prison to punish her for publicly criticizing prison conditions and to serve as an example to other inmates' families, the judge concluded.
"This is of particular concern to the court," Treadwell wrote in a footnote. "Issues related to the conditions inside the SMU [special management unit] are broader than those affecting only this plaintiff. Justified or not, there has been plenty of criticism of how SMU inmates are treated. ... If the defendants decided to make an example of the plaintiff by permanently suspending her visitation privileges because they did not like what she had to say about their prison and its administration, they have not only retaliated against her but have moved to chill the speech of others who are concerned about the manner in which prisoners are housed in the SMU."
A jury will also have to decide to what extent each prison official was involved in the decision to prolong the visitation ban, the order states.
Humphrey and his co-defendants filed a notice of appeal Tuesday.
A spokeswoman for the defendants declined to comment on pending litigation. Jackson's attorney did not return a request for comment.
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