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OR jails change mail policies due to PLN censorship litigation

Gazette-Times, Jan. 1, 2012.
OR jails change mail policies due to PLN censorship litigation - Gazette-Times 2012

Change in inmate mail policy has had little effect on Benton jail


Corvallis Gazette-Times

Benton County jail and others across the state have changed their rules concerning inmate mail since litigation began this year against an Oregon jail for its postcard-only policy.

Benton County relaxed its mail policy in early May — allowing inmates to send and receive mail in envelopes — as a precautionary measure after Prison Legal News filed a lawsuit against Columbia County.

“We took the advice of other jail managers and county councils from around the state, considering what is going on in Columbia County with the suit,” said Capt. Diana Rabago, Benton County Sheriff’s Office jail manager.

More counties have followed suit since U.S. District Court Judge Michael H. Simon on May 29 ordered Columbia County Sheriff’s office to suspend its postcard-only policy on the grounds that it is likely a freedom of speech violation.

All incoming inmate mail is opened, inspected for contraband and screened for inappropriate material, Rabago said, which is why some jails have opted for a postcard-only policy with regards to personal mail. Benton County has always permitted inmates to receive books and periodicals sent directly from their publishers or bookstores, as well as legal or personal-business documents and correspondence.

Allowing personal mail to come in the form of a sealed envelope has had little effect on the jail, Rabago said, due to its relatively low volume. Though the county can house up to 80 inmates at one time, it contracts out 40 of those beds to other counties. The small jail holds a maximum of 40 inmates, many of whom do not stay for a long period and, therefore, don’t accumulate mail. They are either released quickly or shuffled to a different jail with more space.

In addition, Rabago said, friends and families have the option of sending messages electronically to inmates through a secure server.

“With technology, nowadays, there are other options,” Rabago said. “We do have instant email for inmates.”

Jail staff print out the communications daily and distribute them to inmates.

Larger jails in the state may have to use more resources to conform to new mail policies.

“I can see how larger facilities, it could be a big burden for them,” Rabago pointed out.

Marion County, for example, reportedly spent $55,000 to $60,000 annually to inspect inmate mail before its jail established a postcard-only policy in January 2010. The new policy converted the majority of inmate mail from sealed envelopes to postcards, which reduced the cost of sorting mail by 50 percent, the jail reported.

Marion County began accepting inmate mail with envelopes last week in response to the federal court’s order that restricting mail to postcards is likely unconstitutional.

Prison Legal News, a project of the Human Rights Defense Center, filed suit against the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office in January, claiming that the jail failed to deliver prison-related publications to the inmates. The Columbia County jail, which holds up to 150 inmates, established its postcard-only policy in March 2010. According to court documents, jail staff spent one-and-a-half to two hours a day inspecting incoming and outgoing mail before implementing the policy. The new policy saved staff 30 minutes to an hour a day.



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