[PHOTO CREDIT: Provided]
(The Publisher’s Favorite Articles from Past Issues, Mixed in with New Stuff.)
Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! Jails throughout the country — including the Lake County Detention Center in Tavares, Florida — have slowly but surely fallen victim to (of all things), the law. The once-popular prohibition which mandated (via local administrative fiat) that inmates be limited to receiving only postcards has ground to a screeching halt. Let traditional letter writing resume in earnest!
Giving credit where credit is due, it was a recent successful federal lawsuit against Washington’s Lewis County Jail — spearheaded by Prison Legal News (published by the Human Rights Defense Center) — that likely did the most good in throwing jailers across the country off the postcard-only bandwagon once and for all. Main points from the case — as explained by the United States District Court issuing its September 10, 2014 injunction favoring PLN — are summarized below [numerous citations and exhibit-references omitted]:
PLN publishes and distributes a monthly journal of corrections news and analysis, as well as books about the criminal justice system and legal issues affecting prisoners, to prisoners, lawyers, courts, libraries, and the public throughout the country.
From September 2013 through October 2013, PLN mailed to prisoners of Lewis County Jail personally addressed envelopes containing informational brochures about subscribing to PLN, copies of a catalog of books that PLN offers for sale, detailed book offers, and court opinions. The Jail rejected and returned the mail, totaling forty-five pieces of mail.
On forty of the returned items, the Jail staff stamped “RETURN TO SENDER This facility accepts postcards only.” On three items Jail staff stamped “Returned to Sender REASON CHECKED BELOW” with “Unauthorized Mail” checked or circled. On two of the items, Jail staff stamped both “RETURN TO SENDER This facility accepts postcards only” and “Returned to Sender REASON CHECKED BELOW” with “Unauthorized Mail” circled; and, on one of these double stamped items, Jail staff additionally stamped “RETURN TO SENDER. UNDELIVERABLE AS ADDRESSED.” The Jail also… rejects mail sent from family members and friends if not in postcard form.
* * *
Finally, PLN has framed its argument to address the allegedly overbroad nature of the mail policy’s postcard-only restriction and lack of procedural due process safeguards while presenting specific alleged effects of the policy on prisoners and their correspondents in addition to the effect on PLN alone. PLN has demonstrated advocacy on behalf of prisoners and their other correspondents; and has demonstrated that it is able to represent adequately prisoners and their correspondents’ interests in this litigation. Therefore, PLN has standing to assert the rights of the prisoners and other potential senders and recipients of prison mail.
* * *
The postcard-only policy, on its face, prevents PLN from sending materials that are not easily transferable to a postcard, such as court opinions and informational packets. PLN has shown that the information included in these mailings cannot be formatted to fit onto a postcard. For this reason and due to PLN’s necessary reliance on such materials to secure new subscribers and its continued vitality, the barriers implicated by the policy are not an insubstantial hardship.
* * *
The postcard-only policy drastically reduces prisoners’ and other correspondents’ ability to communicate. It is more than a mere inconvenience and becomes a substantial barrier to First Amendment rights. Incarceration does not “form a barrier separating prison inmates [or free citizens] from the protections of the Constitution . . . . ”
* * *
Defendants state that the postcard-only policy reduces by half the time that staff members spend screening mail, but PLN aptly raises important questions concerning the actual amount of time that is saved. PLN questions the methods by which this figure was obtained. Also, PLN contends that the time necessary to review the mailing, mark the reason for its rejection, and attach a notice regarding an option to appeal the decision arguably would be no greater than the time necessary to open and inspect the contents of the envelope for contraband and send it on to the intended recipient. Defendants’ assertion regarding the impact on its budget is simply not well documented.
* * *
Therefore, the Court preliminarily enjoins defendants from restricting incoming and outgoing prisoner mail to postcards only, and orders defendants not to refuse to deliver or process prisoner personal mail on the ground that it is in a form other than a postcard.
Here locally, according to both Chief Deputy Peyton Grinell and Major David Mass, of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, word spread some months ago through law enforcement channels regarding ‘postcard-only litigation,’ and the handwriting was more or less on the wall for jails and other penal institutions across the country. As noted at the outset of this article, the Lake County Detention Center no longer tries to impose an unconstitutional postcard-only restriction on mail sent to or from jail inmates. Remarkably, however, just as one fire burns down another wooded front seems ready to ignite: So-called “advertisement” mail.
Currently, the Lake County Detention Center rejects attorney advertisements which have been reviewed in advance and approved by The Florida Bar, and which bear on the outer envelope in conspicuous red ink — as mandated by Bar Rules — the word “advertisement.” The rationale for this prohibition, according to attorney David Porter (Sheriff Gary S. Borders’ general counsel), is that to allow such correspondence from an attorney to a potential client would necessitate an increase from the two persons who currently open the jail’s mail, to more. (As if this would strain a multi-million dollar budget, or even go beyond a call for a civilian volunteer or two to assist with a hypothetically feared ‘onslaught’ of attorney-letters.)
Given the fact that PLN has been found to have a legitimate, protectable First Amendment interest in mailing inmates “personally addressed envelopes containing informational brochures about subscribing… [and] copies of a catalog of books that PLN offers for sale,” it will be interesting to see whether Lake County can fend off similar constitutional challenges regarding Bar-approved attorney correspondences.
James Hope is a Florida Bar Board Certified Criminal Trial Lawyer who has been practicing criminal law in Tavares, Florida, since 1987. He has also been the Publisher and Executive Editor of Lake Legal News since 2009. He may be contacted at LakeLegalNews@gmail.com, or through his website at www.AttorneyJamesHope.com. [PHOTO CREDIT: Bonnie Whicher]