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Inmate’s education lawsuit denied in court

An inmate in the State Correctional Institution at Houtzdale will not be permitted to take a correspondence course to become a paralegal, according to a ruling late last week by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.

The 31-year-old inmate, Zachary T. Spada, sued the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections because it would not allow him to take the course offered by the Blackstone Career Institute of Allentown.

The department nixed Spada’s attempt to enroll in the course because, it claimed, he had three disciplinary misconduct entries on his prison record during a six month period.

Spada filed a grievance against the state corrections department which was refused.

He then filed a lawsuit against the state in the Clearfield County Court of Common Pleas contending the decision violated his First Amendment rights not only to take a course but also to receive correspondence by mail.

He contended the rule cited by the department “was not reasonable because the policy did not serve a legitimate penological interest.”

Clearfield County Common Pleas Court Judge Fredric J. Ammerman last March 12 dismissed Spada’s lawsuit.

Spada then filed an appeal with the state Superior Court.

That court transferred the case to the Commonwealth Court, which hears arguments relevant to governmental operations.

A three-judge panel consisting of Mary Hannah Leavitt, Anne E. Covey and Christine Fizzano Cannon upheld Ammerman’s dismissal of the case.

The appeals court first addressed Spada’s argument that the DOC violated his constitutional rights.

“In general, access to education is not guaranteed under the United States Constitution and is not, therefore, considered to be a fundamental right or liberty,” stated the Commonwealth Court’s 10-page opinion written by Cannon.

But, the opinion noted, the Pennsylvania General Assembly has established a statutory right to participate in public education.

Spada’s request was that he be allowed to take a post-secondary course.

Ammerman concluded in his opinion that Pennsylvania does not go so far as to consider post-secondary education to be a protected constitutional right.

The DOC rejected Spada’s request for disciplinary reasons and in its review of the case the Commonwealth Court concluded, “The department was therefore within its discretion to treat Spada’s application as a request for a privilege that was subject to denial based on his disciplinary record.”

Spada also contended that as an inmate he had a right to receive mail, which has been upheld in many prior decisions by Pennsylvania’s appeals courts.

Ammerman concluded that in Spada’s case, the department did not violate any right of the inmate to connect with the outside world because Spada has not yet received or attempted to receive materials involving the course.

The Commonwealth Court ruled that his rights to receive the materials for the course through the mail had not actually been violated at this point, and, “Therefore the issue is not yet ripe for review.”

It went on to explain, “The prison and department authorities did not err or violate Spada’s constitutional rights with regard to incoming mail.

“Spada’s request to receive the paralegal course materials was part and parcel of his request to take the course, which the department had discretion to refuse based on Spada’s disciplinary record,” the opinion stated.

Spada was representing himself during the legal proceedings.

He is serving a state prison term on charges of kidnapping and assault in Erie County.

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