Restrictions on inmate mail have loosened at the Spokane County Jail in response to a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of a prisoner rights publishing group.
While mail sent to inmates from friends and family remains limited to postcards, with jail staff citing security precautions as a primary reason, the restriction no longer applies to outgoing mail. Also, the jail will make exceptions to the postcard-only rule for businesses and nonprofit organizations.
The changes were triggered by a lawsuit filed by lawyers for Prison Legal News, part of the nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center. The organization’s publications were being blocked from delivery to inmates because they weren’t postcards.
“The jail made numerous and significant changes to its mail policy to avoid the court ordering the jail to do so,” said Jesse Wing, a Seattle lawyer representing the publication. “We’d like to see them remove the remaining restrictions. We see it as unconstitutional.”
Wing said he hasn’t decided how to proceed, but he intends to seek recovery of legal costs from the county and will ask a judge to decide whether the old policy, implemented in September, was constitutional.
He said he may not have standing to question the policy regarding personal mail because it doesn’t apply to the publication.
“If we can’t, that’ll just have to wait for another lawsuit,” Wing said.
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said the jail changed the policy “rather than get tied up in a lengthy lawsuit.”
“Our whole goal in this was to protect jail staff from incoming items that were shipped in through envelopes,” he said. The initial decision to restrict outgoing inmate mail was based on similar policies, he said.
“This has nothing to do with restricting (inmates’) First Amendment rights,” Knezovich said. “They can still receive things, it just has to be written on a card rather than in an envelope.”
Jail Capt. John McGrath said mail clerks last year detected 201 pieces of contraband in inmate mail between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, including lipstick, sexually explicit material, stickers, perfume, markers, white-out, colored pencils, ribbons, string, metal and wire. He referenced an incident on Dec. 12, 2008, in which a mail clerk suffered an allergic reaction from a substance inside an envelope sent to an inmate.
Limiting incoming mail to postcards eliminates those risks, McGrath said.
“There is no possibility of envelope seams that can conceal contraband and no multiple pages to inspect for substances like blotter acid (LSD) or methamphetamine,” McGrath wrote.
The jail began restricting all outgoing and incoming inmate mail to postcards beginning Sept. 1. Soon, Prison Legal News publications purchased by inmates were returned to the company.
The jail implemented final policy changes Feb. 17, less than a month after Wing filed the complaint in U.S. District Court in Spokane.
Under the new policy, inmates and senders will be told why material was rejected and will be able to appeal the rejection.
Similar postcard policies are in place in Oregon, Arizona, Missouri, Michigan, Colorado, Kansas and Florida. The El Paso County Jail in Colorado lifted its restriction on outgoing mail in December after a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction halting the policy under a lawsuit filed by the national American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Colorado.
Wing said he’s hopeful the jail will lift the incoming mail policy, too, and that other jurisdictions will stop similar restrictions.
“They are, in our view, a fundamental interference with the right of free expression,” Wing said. “Remember Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham jail? How’d you like to read the postcards from a Birmingham jail?”
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