Memo to jail officials: Rethink postcard-only policies

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Jails across the country have imposed restrictive postcard-only mail policies for inmates. The only mail the inmates can receive are metered postcards — no private letters from family members, no care packages. Officials in Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Oregon have instituted such measures.

Officials claim postcard policies increase security and reduce costs. They say that people smuggle in contraband to inmates — such as illegal drugs — in letters and packages.

A federal district judge upheld such a policy at a jail in Maricopa County, Ariz., last September, finding that it was rationally related to the legitimate penological interest of safety. The judge wrote in Covell v. Arpaio that “the reduction of contraband smuggling is a legitimate goal of the Maricopa County jails and that the mail policy is reasonably related to furthering that goal.” Frederick Covell, the inmate who challenged the policy, wished to receive letters from his mother, who was in a nursing home. As he alleged, it was doubtful that his 74-year-old mother was planning on sending drugs to her incarcerated son.

Jail officials and the federal judge in Arizona failed to consider the First Amendment rights of those sending the letters. Family members may have urgent information that they wish to convey to their family member or friend who is incarcerated. They may not be able to provide helpful advice or information in the tight space of a postcard.

For years jails have enforced policies to stop the smuggling of contraband through the mails. Why now is there an institutional obsession to restrict mail to postcards? The Supreme Court has ruled that prisoners have a First Amendment right to receive letters. Maintaining contact with the outside world may be the only chance an inmate has of surviving mentally through the penal ordeal. Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote in his concurring opinion in Procunier v. Martinez (1974): “The mails provide one of the few ties inmates retain to their communities or families — ties essential to the success of their later return to the outside world.”

Granted, the Court has crafted a very deferential standard for prison officials when reviewing inmates’ First Amendment claims. In Turner v. Safley (1987), the Court said prison policies are constitutional if they are reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest. However, one part of that standard provides that such deference is suspended if the officials have engaged in an “exaggerated response.”

Limiting written communication to postcards is an “exaggerated response” and a First Amendment violation by Supreme Court standards.

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