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2010 policy change violated inmates' rights to communicate with outside world, judge says



The Columbia County Jail’s mail policy was recently declared unconstitutional by a federal judge.

A strongly worded 26-page order and opinion from U.S. District Judge Michael Simon, filed in May, states the jail’s March 2010 shift to limiting personal mail for inmates to postcards violated the free speech amendment of the United States Constitution. Simon gave the jail 30 days to refrain from restricting incoming and outgoing inmate correspondence to postcards only.

“The postcard-only mail policy drastically restricts an inmate’s ability to communicate with the outside world,” Simon wrote. “It prevents an inmate’s family from sending items such as photographs, children’s report cards and drawings, and copies of bills, doctor reports, and spiritual and religious tracts.

“Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the postcard-only mail policy creates a hurdle to thoughtful and constructive written communication between an inmate and his or her unincarcerated family and friends.”

The preliminary injunction came after the Prison Legal News publication filed a federal lawsuit in January attacking the policy created by Sheriff Jeff Dickerson two years ago. In 2010, Prison Legal News Editor Paul Wright told The Spotlight such “speech-crushing” policies, which continue to exist at jails around the country, are hurtful to inmates, limiting their ability to connect with those on the outside.

“If you think about it, for the past 10,000 years of western civilization, writing is how we communicate our collective knowledge,” Wright said Aug. 6. “I think the right to receive publications is pretty vital.”

Dickerson would not comment in detail about the pending lawsuit, which continues to be active despite the sheriff complying with the court order and modifying the jail’s policy to re-allow non-postcard personal correspondence. Wright said his law team is working toward getting a permanent injunction.

“I certainly have strong views about it,” Dickerson said Monday.

Prison Legal News is a monthly magazine featuring articles on prisoner rights, court judgments and issues related to incarceration. Their publications, including books, also give advice to detainees and information on rehabilitation. The magazine has a circulation of around 7,000, 65 percent of which are state and federal prisoners.

The complaint filed in January by Prison Legal News — part of the nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center based in Vermont — cites numerous instances since 2010 when the jail returned or never delivered dozens of its publications because of the mail policy.

Following the Columbia County lawsuit and judge’s order, the Benton County jail recently changed its own similar mail policy. Wright believes other jails with related rules will follow suit after the court decision.

Dickerson said the postcard-only policy was a time saver for deputies, taking half as much time to inspect and deliver postcards than it did when letters were coming and going. Judge Simon disagreed with this rationale, stating whatever resource savings came from the policy weren’t enough to justify limiting inmates’ rights to communicate in long-form letters and other mailings.

The jail’s mail policy has gone through seven revisions since the lawsuit was filed in January, Dickerson said.

Another reason Dickerson said the former postcard policy was helpful is that it made it harder for illegal substances to come in and out of the jail. For instance, he said, if Multnomah County had a similar policy, the man accused of sending white powder from the jail along with threatening letters would never have been able to do those alleged actions.

“If Multnomah County would have had the 'no envelope' policy for outgoing mail then they wouldn’t have had any powder sent out,” he said.

The current mail policy is viewable on the sheriff’s website and essentially allows any non-contraband mail that the post office will deliver.

Dickerson said he always wants to err on the side of prisoner rights, which is why he quickly changed his policy.

“We embraced it and we are moving on,” he said. “All along, my goal as sheriff has been to make sure we uphold those rights.”

First Amendment expert David Hudson Jr. applauded the May 29 court decision in a commentary published on www.firstamendmentcenter.org. Hudson wrote based on a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court case, restrictions on inmates’ free speech rights are only reasonable if they relate to “legitimate penological interest, such as safety or rehabilitation.”

View a copy of the judge's ruling here: Court order

This story has been edited from an earlier version.

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