Federal judge cancels Ore. jail’s postcard-only policy

Thursday, May 31, 2012

An Oregon county jail’s policy of limiting inmate mail to postcards likely violates the First Amendment, a federal district court has ruled, granting a preliminary injunction preventing enforcement of the policy.

The Columbia County Jail instituted the postcard-only policy in March 2010 for both incoming and outgoing mail. The policy led to the censorship of many magazines and other publications, including various publications by Prison Legal News.

PLN sued in federal court last January, contending that the policy violated the First Amendment. PLN publishes a monthly journal of prison news and numerous other books about the criminal justice system. The group alleged that many of its works were not delivered to inmates. The jail did revise its mail policy, allowing inmates to receive the Prison Legal News’ monthly journal which goes by the same name as the group.

On May 29, U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon sided with PLN in Prison Legal News v. Columbia County. He applied the test for evaluating restrictions on inmates’ constitutional rights from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Turner v. Safley (1987). Under this test, restrictions do not violate inmates’ First Amendment rights if they are reasonably related to legitimate penological interests, such as safety or rehabilitation.

The Turner v. Safley test comprises four parts: (1) whether the regulation is rationally related to a legitimate and neutral government objective; (2) whether alternative avenues remain open to inmates to exercise their freedom of speech; (3) the effect that accommodating inmates’ free speech will have on other inmates and staff; and (4) whether there are obvious and easy alternatives to the regulation in question.

The jail contended that the policy was rationally related to both safety and the efficient use of the jails’ limited resources. Judge Simon rejected these arguments. As to the safety argument, Prison Legal News pointed out that before the postcard-only policy jail officials opened inmate letters to check for contraband. Simon wrote that the officials “have failed to offer evidence or even an intuitive, common-sense reason why the postcard-only mail policy more effectively prevents the introduction of contraband than opening and inspecting letters.”

Jail officials also advanced an institutional-efficiency argument, contending that it is much easier and quicker to inspect postcards than letters. But, Simon wrote that “the time-savings is too modest to demonstrate a significant rational relationship between the postcard-only policy and improving the Jail’s efficiency.”

Simon also ruled that the other Turner v. Safley factors “all point in the same direction.”

As previously noted, limiting prisoners’ mail like this is an exaggerated response that violates the First Amendment. The judge got it right.

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