There is little doubt the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects ordinary citizens from unconstitutional takings. 1 However, the prison environment presents unique circumstances that call into question the applicability of this protection to prison inmates. In fact, many courts have denied prison inmates the property rights they maintained prior to incarceration.2 One right that courts have denied prisoners is the property right to the interest earned on their inmate accounts.3 Yet, not all courts have denied prisoners a property right to such interest, creating a definitive split among the federal courts of appeals. On one side, courts applying the common law rule of “interest follows principal” contend that a prisoner maintains a property right to the interest that accrues on his inmate account. For example, in Schneider v. California Department of Corrections,4 the Ninth Circuit held that a prisoner had a property right to the interest earned on his inmate account because “interest follows principal” is a “‘core’ notion” that cannot be denied even to a prisoner.5 On the other side, courts focusing on the unique circumstances of the prison environment contend that a prisoner has forfeited any property right to the interest earned on his account. For instance, a prisoner’s lack of property rights at common law led both the Fourth Circuit in Washlefske v. Winston6 and the Eleventh Circuit in Givens v. Alabama Department of Corrections7 to conclude that a prisoner has no property right to the interest earned on his inmate account and, thus, cannot claim that such property was unconstitutionally taken.8 In 2011, the First Circuit Court of Appeals was confronted with the same substantial issue in Young v. Wall9 that had previously split the federal circuit courts. After the First Circuit analyzed the decisions of the Fourth, Eleventh, and Ninth Circuits, it concluded that a prison inmate lacks a constitutionally protected property right to the interest not yet paid on his inmate account.10 Part II of this Note describes the traditional sources of property rights underlying the courts’ opinions and then describes the split regarding inmates’ property rights on interest-bearing accounts among the federal courts of appeals. Part II also takes a closer look at Young v. Wall, examining the facts surrounding the case and the First Circuit’s opinion. Part III begins by analyzing the tension surrounding constitutional rights in the prison environment. The constitutional protections afforded to prisoners are of such importance that the Fourth and Eleventh Circuits used the Ninth Circuit’s failure in Schneider to address the issue as justification for their refusal to follow the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning. As Young borrows from the analysis in Washlefske and Givens, Part III next describes two problems with these opinions. First, an inmate does have a property right in the wages held in his inmate fund. Second, the common law rule that “interest follows principal” should apply in the prison context. Finally, Part III addresses whether interest should follow principal in the prison environment—a public policy issue left unaddressed by any of the courts’ opinions. Part IV concludes that when a court completely addresses each aspect of the issue, a prisoner should have a constitutionally protected right to the interest that accrues on his inmate account.
Does Interest Always Follow Principal?: A Prisoner’s Property Right to the Interest Earned on His Inmate Account Under Young v. Wall, 642 F.3d 49 (1st Cir. 2011),
92 Neb. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/nlr/vol92/iss1/7