Spokane County Jail is abandoning its policy of requiring that personal letters to prisoners be written only on postcards. The action comes under a proposed settlement reached last week in a lawsuit filed in federal court by Prison Legal News (PLN) challenging the restrictive policy for incoming mail. The ACLU of Washington filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the PLN suit, saying the jail’s policy violated the constitutional rights of both inmates and individuals who correspond with them.
“For individuals in jail, correspondence with parents, children, spouses, support groups, sponsors, and friends is a vital lifeline to the outside world. This unnecessarily restrictive policy caused serious hardships for inmates seeking to exchange information, ideas, and feelings with a wide range of people,” said ACLU-WA staff attorney Nancy Talner.
Spokane County Jail initially had adopted a “postcard-only” policy in September 2010 that limited inmate mail, other than legal and “official” mail, to postcards and certain approved publications. After PLN filed suit (PLN v. Spokane County) against the policy, the jail revised it to permit delivery of PLN and to remove the postcard-only policy for outgoing mail.
But the continuing restriction on incoming mail had an obviously chilling effect on discussion of many sensitive health and relationship issues, since anyone handling a postcard might see its content. As the ACLU-WA brief pointed out, such correspondence included spiritual guidance from clergy and advice for those working the 12 steps of an addiction program, among others. In addition, the space requirement of fitting correspondence onto a postcard was a severe limitation on what could be expressed. As but one example, the ACLU brief cited an inmate’s elderly mother with arthritis who found it physically infeasible to use the cramped handwriting needed for a single postcard.
County officials had justified the restrictive policy as needed to prevent drugs and other contraband from entering the jail. The ACLU-WA and attorneys for PLN objected to the policy as overly broad, pointing out that it prevented inmates from receiving many magazines and other constitutionally protected materials. Under the settlement, jail staff will now screen incoming mail on a case-by-case basis and must show “legitimate penological interests” for blocking materials. Senders and recipients will be able to appeal the jail’s decision to reject mail.
The Spokane County Council has approved the proposed settlement, which will become final when approved by the court. It includes a declaration that the original postcard-only policy was unconstitutional, an injunction ending the policy for all incoming and outgoing mail, and $230,000 in damages, fees, and costs. The settlement agreement does note that the county reserves the right to argue that its postcard-only policy for incoming mail is constitutional, if other courts later agree with that argument.
PLN was represented by attorneys Jesse Wing and Katherine Chamberlain of MacDonald Hoague and Bayless, and Lance Weber of the Human Rights Defense Center. Legal director Sarah Dunne and staff attorneys Nancy Talner and Lindsey Soffes wrote the ACLU-WA brief.