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Wish You Were Here! Jails Adopt Postcard-Only Mail Policies

By January 2010, 13 of Oregon’s 36 counties had implemented policies that limit incoming and outgoing mail at county jails to postcards. Ten other counties plan to adopt similar rules in the future. The postcard-only policy is a national trend that began in 2002 in the Maricopa County, Arizona jail system under the direction of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is known for his harsh and abusive treatment of prisoners.

Oregon sheriffs touted the new mail policy as a cost-cutting measure, yet most counties admit that it is unknown how much money the policy will save. Only Marion County Jail Commander Jeff Holland was willing to estimate the fiscal impact.

Marion County spends about $60,000 annually sorting prisoner mail, according to Holland. “We estimate by going to the postcard system, we can cut that in half,” he said.

Holland claims that his jail processes over 1,000 pieces of prisoner mail each week and that it takes about nine hours a day to process incoming correspondence. Administrative employees first sort the mail. Deputies then open the letters, remove the envelope flap and stamp, and read and search the letters for contraband or other violations of the jail’s mail policy.

The postcard-only rule decreases the likelihood that contraband will be introduced. The most common contraband discovered in mail sent to prisoners is pornography, according to Holland. “It’s been a problem off and on as long as I’ve been in the business – 23 years,” he stated.

“We’re not trying to be mean or make people upset,” said Marion County Sheriff Jason Myers. “It’s about efficiency and safety in the workplace.” The new mail policy, which reduces the workload on mailroom staff, frees up deputies to patrol jail grounds and focus on safety, Myers noted. Clackamas County Sheriff’s Lt. Lee Eby echoed that reasoning.
“We always need more staff, and we deal with what we have,” said Eby. “Being able to shift some of these critical duties to office staff would be beneficial for us.”

Marion County prisoners must purchase standardized, pre-stamped 3.5-by-8.5 inch postcards that feature a photograph of the jail. In other counties a 5-by-8.5 inch pre-stamped postcard will sell for 55 cents. Legal mail and official mail to and from public officials is exempt from the postcard policy.

“I do believe they will save some money, but what’s the long-term effect of that cost savings?” asked Jann Carsen, associate director of the ACLU of Oregon. “We think that it is a bad policy if it is going to limit the way inmates are going to be able to communicate with their families in a meaningful way.”

Oregon’s largest jail system is in Multnomah County, which elected not to adopt the postcard-only policy. “We just want them to have open communication with their families and loved ones, and a postcard limits communication with less space,” said Multnomah Sheriff’s Lt. Mary Lindstrand.

Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the New York-based National Lawyers Guild, which publishes the Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook, agreed. She said the postcard policy was part of a “trend to depersonalize those who are incarcerated,” and “curtails their right to write to us in a very detailed fashion.”

It is “illogical” and “draconian” said Adam Lovell, who runs the Florida-based website “It’s a whole other world inside, and the anchors out here are very, very critical to [prisoners].”

“We weren’t violating anybody’s civil rights,” countered Maricopa County Sheriff’s Lt. Robert Eastland. “There is no right to privacy when it comes to this.”

Clackamas County’s Lt. Eby concurred, arguing that prisoners gave up most of their privacy rights when they went to jail. “To say their privacy is gone is pretty ridiculous,” he said. “If they want to say emotional stuff [in postcards] they can.”

Lt. Eby and Washington County Jail Commander Marie Tyler noted there is no limit – except indigency, of course – on the number of postcards prisoners can mail out.

Jail prisoners are not happy about the policy. There were “a lot of people with animosity toward it,” stated Marion County prisoner Timothy Jones. “I don’t know what you can say on a 3-by-8 [postcard],” he said. “Some of us got kids and other things that we need to discuss with our families.”

Asked if the policy was fair, Jones remarked, “I’m incarcerated; what is fair? I think it is more unfair to our families.”

Sondelyn Laughlin writes to a longtime family friend who is in jail, sending up to three letters a week. “This seems barbaric,” said Laughlin. “I know a lot of people that depend on family letters to uplift them and keep them part of their life.”

She is irritated by the new mail policy but not deterred. “I guess I’ll have to write 10 postcards a day,” she said. “Like pages of a letter, it will be pages of a postcard.”

“It is essential for ensuring the successful rehabilitation of prisoners that they be able to maintain ties to their families and communities by writing letters,” observed David Fathi, Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “It is neither prudent nor constitutional to enact an across-the-board policy that significantly restricts the First Amendment freedoms of all current and future pre-trial detainees and prisoners in the jail.”

Despite such concerns, Benton, Clackamas, Columbia, Curry, Deschutes, Harney, Jackson, Josephine, Malheur, Marion, Tillamook, Umatilla, Lincoln and Washington Counties in Oregon have adopted postcard-only policies. Coos, Douglas, Jefferson, Lane, Linn, Gilliam, Wasco, Sherman, Hood River and Yamhill Counties plan to implement such policies too, according to the Marion County Sheriff’s Office.

Similar postcard-only rules have cropped up at jails in Wyandotte County, Atchison County and Johnson County in Kansas; El Paso and Boulder Counties in Colorado; Alachua, Pasco, Charlotte, Desoto, Manatee, Volusia, Santa Rosa and Lee Counties in Florida; Jackson County and Cass County in Missouri; Yuma County, Arizona; Ingham County, Michigan; and in September 2010 at the Spokane County Jail in Washington State. Most recently, the jail in Ventura County, California adopted a postcard-only rule for mail sent to and from prisoners, effective October 4.

The ACLU has filed lawsuits challenging policies at the Boulder County and El Paso County jails in Colorado that limit outgoing mail to postcards. A class-action suit filed against El Paso County on September 14, 2010 notes that jail prisoners are “barred from sending any letters to family members, friends, doctors, psychiatrists and members of the clergy, among many other categories of people.” See: Martinez v. Maketa, U.S.D.C. (D. Col.), Case No. 1:10-cv-02242 (against El Paso County); Clay v. Pelle, U.S.D.C. (D. Col.), Case No. 1:10-cv-01840 (against Boulder County).

“This postcard-only policy severely restricts prisoners’ ability to communicate with their parents, children, spouses, domestic partners, sweethearts, friends or almost anyone else who does not fall within the jail’s narrow exception to the newly-imposed ban on outgoing letters,” said Mark Silverstein, Legal Director of the ACLU of Colorado. “This unjustified restriction on written communications violates the rights of both the prisoners and their correspondents. Families have a First Amendment right to receive all of their loved ones’ written words, not just the few guarded sentences a prisoner can fit onto a postcard.”

Prisoners and their family members filed suit over the postcard-only policy at the Manatee County jail in Florida, which even restricts writing on postcards to black or blue ink and prohibits drawings, preventing prisoners from sending hand-drawn pictures to their children. See: Gambuzza v. Parmenter, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Fla.), Case No. 8:09-cv-01891-EAK-TBM.

“The First Amendment protects the rights of inmates, just like it protects the rights of everyone in this country,” said Katherine Earle Yanes, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the suit against Manatee County. “It’s not only the inmates’ rights that are implicated in this, but the rights of anyone who wants to communicate to inmates.”

The district court dismissed the Manatee County suit in May 2010, finding that it “lacks an arguable basis in law because the Courts have found that the post-card only mail policy is ‘reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.’” A motion for reconsideration is pending and if unsuccessful the dismissal will be appealed, according to Yanes.

A similar lawsuit, filed on Sept. 14, 2010, is challenging a postcard-only policy adopted by the jail in Santa Rosa County, Florida. The plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU of Florida and the Florida Justice Institute. See: Reynolds v. Hall, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Fla.), Case No. 3:10-cv-00355-MCR-EMT.

“The ability of inmates to write to family members has positive rehabilitating effects,” noted Randy Berg, director of the Florida Justice Institute. “To limit letters to a postcard is detrimental to what we should be striving for. When these prisoners get out, they need some type of bond with the family and they shouldn’t lose that connection.”

Sources: The Oregonian, Associated Press, ACLU press release, The Ledger,, Los Angeles Times

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Related legal cases

Reynolds v. Hall

Clay v. Pelle

Martinez v. Maketa

Gambuzza v. Parmenter