August 14, 2010 in City

Tight rein on jail mail

Correspondence, with a few exceptions, will be limited to standardized postcards
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jesse Tinsley photo

Spokane County sheriff’s clerk Patty Aguilar sorts the day’s mail at the county jail on Friday.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Processing

Mail sorters handle hundreds of letters daily for inmates at Geiger Correctional Facility and the downtown jail. They open each letter and remove the stamps to check for harmful substances.

Spokane County jails will join a growing number of lockups that restrict inmate mail to postcards.

Starting Sept. 1, inmates cannot send or receive letters in envelopes. Instead, they and anyone they correspond with must use postcards measuring 8 ½ by 5 ½ inches.

Jail officials say the new policy will reduce labor costs and increase safety by discouraging hidden contraband.

The county has imposed other mail restrictions over the years because of contraband risks, said Lt. Joanne Lake, a detention services administrator. Some inmates have filed grievances over the planned change. One group in the downtown jail also wrote a letter to The Spokesman-Review:

“Mail sent on postcards will not allow any privacy between inmates and their loved ones. Other inmates will be able to see what other inmates’ families write to them, and what inmates write to their loved ones. Inmates will likely lose their families and friends as their outside support,” wrote Tony Bolen and five other signers.

Lake, who once sorted jail mail herself, said the change is not intended to impede communication with relatives. “We do want inmates to have correspondence because it’s important for them to have those family ties,” she said.

With 159 inmates at Geiger Correctional Facility and 528 at the downtown jail, sorters receive hundreds of letters daily. They open each letter and remove the stamps to check for substances that may harm the sorters or inmates. Switching to postcards will reduce the risk of contamination or outbreak, Lake said.

It also should save time processing the mail, she said. Sorters don’t read letters, but they do scan them for keywords like “escape” or any messages about harming themselves. It’s a time-intensive process, Lake said.

In exceptions to the new policy, families still may send inmates money in envelopes, and inmates may communicate with attorneys through sealed letters.

Due to budget cuts, mail for both jails is processed downtown. After two rounds of layoffs this summer, the staff is down two people. Lake estimates the change will eliminate staff to one and a half positions.

Other states that have adopted the postcard policy include Oregon, Arizona, Missouri, Michigan, Colorado, Kansas and Florida. Earlier this month, the national American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Colorado sued Boulder County Jail over the policy. They claim that the format limits expression for prisoners to communicate personal matters, such as their sexuality, medical conditions or marital issues.

The Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook, a publication by the National Lawyers Guild and Center for Constitutional Rights, says the First Amendment protects inmates’ freedom of speech, including “the right to read books and magazines, the right to call or write to your family and friends. … However, in prison those rights are restricted by the prison’s need for security and administrative ease.”

Inmates may receive magazines and books through a publisher or certified bookstore, Lake said. The new policy includes a list of acceptable magazines, including People, Home and Garden, and Wired.

Inmates must purchase the postcards in the commissary, and families can purchase the cards at office supply stores or through the Internet. Websites give families the option to put pictures on postcards, as they no longer can include a picture in a letter, Lake said.

“Making families and friends pay the extra cost of buying postcards is a punishment for their loved ones being in jail,” the local inmates wrote to the newspaper.


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