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Jail mail policy unconstitutional, judge says

by: SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - The Columbia County Jail ceased its postcard only mail policy for inmates in May 2012 following an injunction from a federal judge.The Columbia County Jail’s mail policy, which allowed inmates to send and receive only postcards, was unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled recently.

For the last two years, the jail had restricted mail to address dwindling cash and staff resources. There was also the issue of safety — mail is a way for contraband to enter jail facilities.

An injunction from U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon halted the practice in May 2012 and a final ruling was made public April 25. Simon determined the policy violated the First Amendment rights of the inmates as well as the people who write them.

Other jails across the country have put into place “postcard only” policies and the new ruling questioning the legality of the practice could have far reaching consequences. Jails have defended the practice saying it has cut down on contraband coming into the jail, but this argument didn’t satisfy Simon when it came to the Columbia County Jail since the policy also prohibited necessary mail such as legal documents and unpaid bills as well as family mail.

Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson also agreed the mail policy was not in response to a known contraband issue.

“Defendants’ postcard-only policy was a solution in search of a problem,” Simon concluded, following a finding of fact trial.

Dickerson is not sure if the county will try to appeal the ruling.

“It’s out of my hands completely,” he said.

The May 2012 injunction came after the publication Prison Legal News filed a lawsuit earlier that year, calling the jail’s mail policies “speech-crushing.”

“If you think about it, for the past 10,000 years of Western civilization, writing is how we communicate our collective knowledge,” Prison Legal News Editor Paul Wright told the Spotlight then. “I think the right to receive publications is pretty vital.”

Since the injunction was put in place last May, the Sheriff’s Office has been adjusting. Dickerson said they have moved the mail opening time to the graveyard shift when things are quieter at the jail. The deputies on duty still go on rounds, but have time for other things, Dickerson said.

“Whatever impact it would have it’s already had,” he said, referring to any strain mail duties place on staff. He says it takes staff about half an hour to go through inmate mail.

“We can read it if we choose to,” Dickerson said. “It doesn’t mean we always do.”