Jail Post Card-Only Policy Can Be Costly in the Long Run, New Report Claims (Updated 4-26-13)
Date:  02-12-2013

Lawsuit expected to decide if post-card only policy violates right to free speech
Update: On April 26, 2013 the American Bar Journal reported that a federal judge in Oregon issued a decision asserting that a Portland jail that implemented a post-card only policy is in violation of the First Amendment Rights of “ both those who send and those who receive mail.” The decision may impact other correctional facilities that have also issued a post-card only policy. Click here to go to website. The original article appears below.

Ask any prisoner what a letter from home means, and you will most likely get a response that a simple letter is one of the key ways of keeping connected to one’s family. Many prisoners are housed in facilities miles away from home, so visits are few and far between. Even those in jails closer to home might not get many visits as family members face problems such as visiting hours that might interfere with work, school, child care issues and transportation. The cost of a phone call, the subject of other articles that were posted in Reentry Central, can be prohibitive to inmates and family members alike.

Some jails have instituted a post card-only policy, which they claim will cut down on the risk of contraband coming into their facility. Reentry Central has not seen a study that determines that mail is the major source of obtaining contraband in a correctional facility. Most institutions open letters coming into the facility and shake out the contents to make sure contraband isn’t included. This measure is used in both state and federal facilities without a problem. While some contraband may be sent via mail, the vast majority is smuggled in by visitors and rogue correctional staff members.

Writing a letter home can be cathartic to an inmate. Being able to pour one’s heart out in relative privacy can be a major stress release in jail. It is also one of the best ways to stay connected to one’s family. Discussing one’s health problems, pending legal matters or other private matters with a family member should not be subjected to being confided on a post card that can be read by anyone who comes in contact with it.

The following press release from Prison Policy Initiative outlines the issues addressed in Return to Sender: Postcard-only Mail Policies in Jail. The full report can be read by clicking on the link at the end of the article.

Local jails should think twice before cutting off letters from home, says the research think tank Prison Policy Initiative in a new report, Return to Sender: Postcard-only Mail Policies in Jail.

The report argues that the growing jail trend to ban letters and restrict mail to only postcards deters communication that is essential for keeping people from reoffending after release. "Letters are one of the three main ways that people in jails maintain family ties. Phone calls are outrageously expensive, and limited visiting hours often make letters the only viable way to stay in touch," said Leah Sakala, the report's author and a policy analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. "The social science research is clear -- people in jail need to maintain strong outside ties to keep from coming right back after they're released."

Sheriffs often claim that restricting incoming and outgoing mail to postcards will reduce the time it takes to screen for contraband, but, Sakala said, "the public must insist that sheriffs balance vague claims of cost savings against the very expensive risk that individuals whose community ties have been jeopardized by the postcard-only policies will return to jail."

The report demonstrates, often with examples from successful lawsuits, why postcards are inadequate substitutes for letters. Not only does communication via postcard cost 34 times as much as via letter, but banning envelopes forces people to choose between exposing personal information to anyone who sees the postcard or not communicating at all. "Requiring family members who want to stay in touch to pay extra and expose private information ensures that they are punished, too," Sakala explained. "The security practices of all state and federal prisons show that correctional facilities can effectively screen mail without resorting to postcard-only policies."

The report also finds that postcard-only mail rules contradict the best practices outlined by major professional organizations, including the American Correctional Association and the American Jail Association.

The postcard-only policy trend began five years ago with controversial Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, and caught on at first among administrators of small county jails. Today, dozens of jails in at least 13 states have instituted postcard-only policies. Most recently, the San Diego County Jail embraced the policy in September, and the Sacramento County Jail is set to enforce its own version on February 10. Also last fall, a prison in New Mexico was poised to be the first state prison to implement a postcard-only restriction, but at the last minute the state Department of Corrections intervened and indefinitely postponed the policy.

A federal trial is currently underway in Oregon to determine if the Columbia County Jail's postcard-only policy violates the free speech rights of incarcerated people and those who correspond with them. While the trial is ongoing, the judge has already issued a preliminary injunction against the jail's postcard-only policy. The report calls for jails with postcard-only policies to rescind them, and calls on state and federal agencies to refuse to contract with facilities that have postcard-only policies.

Contact: Leah Sakala, (413) 527-0845, lsakala@prisonpolicy.org

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