Essay: Constitutionality of a Postcard-Only Mail

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[. . .] Despite the lack of challenge to this policy, Judge Simon felt compelled to note that issues of Prison Legal News and a child's report card could not be considered disruptive. Regarding easy alternatives to a restrictive mail policy, Judge Simon pointed out that an additional 30 to 60 minutes of time spent screening would be exactly the kind of easy alternative the U.S. Supreme Court meant in Turner v. Safley. When weighing restriction on free speech against an extra hour of mail handling, Judge Simon felt comfortable concluding that this was the kind of easy solution that rendered the restrictive mail policy unreasonable.

Judge Simon summed up his decision by stating that the "… postcard-only mail policy blocks one narrow avenue for the introduction of contraband -- within envelopes -- at too great an expense to the First Amendment rights of inmates and their correspondents." (Prison Legal News v. Columbia County et al., 2012, p. 23). Since Judge Simon found in favor of the plaintiff Prison Legal News on all four tests of reasonableness, he issued a preliminary injunction to halt the postcard-only inmate mail policy at Columbia County Jail based on First Amendment concerns. This is a significant decision, because issuing a preliminary injunction meant the judge had to feel reasonably confident that the plaintiff would prevail at trial.

In contrast, Judge Simon was less confident about the procedural due process challenge under the Fourteenth Amendment (Prison Legal News v. Columbia County et al., 2012). Based on a 1999 9th Circuit ruling (Frost v. Symington), inmates have a right to be notified when their incoming mail is rejected or withheld. Columbia County Jail had recently revised its mail policy governing handling of legal and official correspondence by providing a system of formal notification for incoming mail if it is rejected. Although Judge Simon was unable to issue a preliminary injunction, he was still concerned about the lack of a well-defined formal notification system for outgoing mail. The judged ruled that this issue would be best decided at trial and felt a preliminary injunction was not adequately supported by the evidence at hand.

Since the details about the DOC's postcard-only mail policy does not mention how legal and official correspondence is handled, or whether inmates are being notified when their mail is rejected or withheld, the assumption is that all correspondence of this type is being restricted to postcards under this policy. Given the analysis of procedural due process rights of inmates by Judge Simon (Prison Legal News v. Columbia County et al., 2012), it seems unlikely that the postcard-only mail policy at Columbia County Jail would survive a challenge under the Fourteenth Amendment. Issues of privacy might also be raised with respect to legal and official correspondence, but the postcard-only mail policy would likely not survive First and Fourteenth Amendment challenges, thus rendering this issue moot.

Detailed Conclusion

If Judge Simon's analysis of a postcard-only mail policy at a county jail represents a reasonable analysis of First and Fourteenth Amendment concerns surrounding this issue, then the DOC's mail policy would also likely fail to survive Constitutional challenges in court. The mail policy would probably fail all four tests of reasonableness under Turner, unless it can be shown that the increased contraband represents a significant threat to prison security and safety which cannot be addressed in any other manner. Given that prisoners must have access to the outside world, and vice versa, it would also have to be shown that visitation and phone privileges would be sufficient to meet inmate speech and procedural due process rights. From Judge Simon's perspective, this cannot be accomplished. With respect to the rights of correctional authorities to screen for potentially disruptive content, the facts provided about the DOC mail policy do not suggest that any of the concerned parties are contesting this need.

There is a possibility that the enormity of the mail handling task in a larger institution could represent a significant burden on prison staffing. The facts provided suggest that the prison is understaffed by 400 correctional officers, which is indeed a substantial burden on prison staff responsible for ensuring the safety of inmates and prison personnel and ensuring that inmates do not escape. Whether the courts would agree with the DOC's argument that a personnel shortage should be rectified at the expense of inmate First Amendment rights is not clear from case law, although Judge Simon hints that the current mail policy and prison guard shortage creates conditions inconsistent with the legitimate penological interest of inmate rehabilitation. If Judge Simon's perspective is adopted, then absent a dramatic increase in mail volume or a mail volume significantly greater than other prisons, it seems unlikely that a postcard-only mail policy could be justified by staffing shortages. If it were, then prison officials could simply cut more inmate services to save costs. At some point the rehabilitative potential is lost under cost-cutting measures and it seems unlikely that federal courts would support such extreme measures.

Recommendation

Based on the above analysis, the postcard-only mail policy should be terminated or significantly revised to meet the speech and procedural due process rights of inmates. Possible revisions include making an exception for legal and official correspondence and implementing a notification system for both inmates and external parties. Even with these recommended revisions in place, the challenges posed by the reasonableness tests under Turner may still be insurmountable by any postcard-only mail policy in a correctional setting.

References

Justia.com. (n.d.). U.S. law: Government as administrator of prisons. Retrieved 29 Oct. 2012 from http://law.justia.com/constitution/us/amendment-01/34-government-as-administrator-of-prisons.html.

Madison.com. (2009, February 15). Prison contraband: A sampling of what gets collected. Retrieved 29 Oct. 2012 from http://host.madison.com/news/article_61400447-7e08-5a9b-a132-6e1d21377518.html.

Prison Legal News v. Columbia County et al., Case 3:12-cv-00071-SI (D. Or. 2012). Retrieved 29 Oct. 2012 from http://docs.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/oregon/ordce/3:2012cv00071/105732/64/. [END OF PREVIEW]

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