Utah inmates file federal lawsuit over mail policies

Friday, June 25, 1999

Three inmates in Utah have sued the San Juan County Jail and jail officials in federal court, contending that mail policies amount to censorship and violate prisoners' constitutional rights.

In their lawsuit, Briggs v. Christensen, Steven Briggs, Raymond Richard Hanson and Robert Ferguson challenge three different regulations: the “bulk-rate mail,” “sexually oriented material” and catalog policies.

The bulk-rate mail policy prevents inmates from accepting any written or printed material, including magazines and newspapers, sent by bulk-rate mail. According to the inmates' lawsuit, the jail's policy bans reading materials “based upon the whim or fancy of defendants.”

Robert Wallace, the attorney representing the jail and corrections officials, said, “The policy itself states that inmates will receive mail directed to them or mail from nonprofit organizations. In its application, the jail personnel kept from inmates only bulk-rate junk mail (advertisements or solicitations for a business) … to which they had no entitlement anyway.”

Brian Barnard, the inmates' attorney, says the language of the policy is too vague and that jail officials don't want inmates to have unsolicited advertisements.

“The solution is to put a limit on the amount of mail a prisoner should have in the cell,” Barnard said.

The sexually oriented-material policy prohibits inmates from receiving written or printed materials containing sexually oriented depictions. The inmates' lawsuit argues that the policy contains “no definition of 'sexually oriented material' and no criteria upon which defendants are to determine if material is 'sexually oriented.'”

“My understanding is that the regulations banned inmates from receiving sexually oriented material,” Wallace said. “The regulations had specific definitions of the types of indecent material which inmates could not receive. The reason indecent material was kept from inmates related to valid penological purposes.

“Some of those purposes included: to keep such material out of the hands of convicted sexual offenders toward their rehabilitation; to avoid altercations over such materials; to avoid sexual assaults by inmates on others; and to avoid [a] hostile work environment for female jailers.”

The inmates also allege that jail officials recently “confiscated and withheld from inmates magazines and other printed material containing 'sexually oriented' depictions based upon the defendants' 'sexually oriented material' policy.”

According to Barnard, prison officials justify the sexual-material policy by saying that “inmates having nude pictures may constitute sexual harassment, employment discrimination and a hostile work environment for female [workers].”

The catalog policy prevents prisoners from receiving catalogs by mail and from ordering “First Amendment-protected materials,” according to the suit. While inmates are allowed to receive compact discs and tapes, the jail policy prohibits them from using catalogs to order the merchandise, Barnard says.

He says that by limiting inmates' access to catalogs, jail officials are limiting prisoners' ability to exercise their First Amendment rights by restricting their communication with the outside world.

Wallace had no comment regarding the catalog policy.

The lawsuit filed on June 2 seeks class-action status, a judgment that the policies are illegal, and $1 a day in damages per inmate for each day he or she has been incarcerated under the policies.

“The First Amendment is one of the few rights that [inmates] have,” Barnard said. “Prison administrators want their job to be easy. Within the last four or five years prison administrators have been able to prevent [sexually oriented] material from coming in,” Barnard said.

“Based on the nature of jails, access to sexually explicit material is traditional, something that has been accepted for a prisoner [in a] jail setting,” he said.

The restriction of prisoner's free-speech rights “is a continuing process, something that will never be resolved,” Barnard said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.